NASA JPL crowdsources with cloud

We continue our conversation about NASA’s JPL moving into the cloud.

Today, we start off discussing how President Barack Obama’s Open Government Initiative is influencing cloud at agencies — and whether or not cloud is helping JPL to comply.

Tom Soderstrom, the IT CTO at NASA JPL and Khawaja Shams, senior solution architect at NASA JPL tell us more.

TS: Essentially you can divide what we do in two ways. One is, it’s good for the mission. It makes us do better science. The other one is about communicating that to the public and getting the public excited. Our stockholders are the public. If the public wants to know more about space and science . . . it will go through the budget.

We’re very pleased to see that it’s a cloud and we’re big supporters of data.gov. We think it’s a fantastic idea — [where] you can get the data out at less cost and much more easily to the scientists and the public. So, we came up with this term . . . of citizen scientists. If they could get access to the data much more easily and quicker, they could maybe even help turn the wheels of science.

We worked with Microsoft using their Azure cloud on [a project] called Be a Martian. Citizens are able to do anything from tagging images online to creating programs that tag the images online. It’s a contest and . . . it’s been very successful. It’s a way of crowdsourcing and we took the images — 250,000 images from the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity — put them in the Azure cloud and gave the citizens access to it. It’s been terrific. We did the same thing with at EclipseCon.

KS: EclipseCon is a developer conference. Roughly a thousand or so developers worldwide attend each year in Santa Clara, and we held a contest there called the e4 Rover contest where we allowed developers to drive a mini robot around a Martian landscape basically that we had put together. We used this as an opportunity for public outreach, as well as to get developers to build interfaces to command the robot and view the telemetry that is coming back from the robot.

In order to run this contest, we needed a lot of infrastructure that we didn’t want to just go buy for this one week contest. So, we ran the entire contest on the Amazon cloud and leveraged a lot of the services that are very common to companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Google and we were able to get these for free and very quickly — services like load balancing . . . [and] getting computers running in multiple data centers, and services like the delivery of images to the operators that were, in this case, the developers. This project was actually quite successful and it made venues like Slashdot and Digg.

We ended up getting a lot of open source code back that we can go ahead and directly use to make very useable interfaces.

TS: What surprised us a little bit was the quality of the code that these developers came up with during the conference. It was 24 by 7 and Khawaja was there manning it, and the ways of lighting the road that the developers came up with were quite ingenious, including one on an iPhone. So, the crowdsourcing works both ways and we are quite excited about it.

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