Name: Yvonne Pendleton, Ricky Guest, Ashcon Nejad, Teague Soderman
Headquarters: California, USA (and the Moon)
Superpower: Exploring space
There’s almost no one working as remotely as the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI)! In this episode, I interview them about how they work remotely, what’s working well, and what challenges they are facing.
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The team are so willing to makes themselves available at these really difficult times in the middle of the night here. And I think it’s because we all really believe in what we’re doing and we can see the effect that we’re getting more bang for the buck, more communication is happening that enables new science discoveries at the intersection of disciplines that otherwise might never happen. – Yvonne Pendleton
Lisette: Great! And we’re live. So welcome, everybody, to this Hangout On Air. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And I’m over the top excited today to be speaking with folks from the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute, SSERVI. And it just doesn’t more remote than this when we’re doing solar system exploration. So I’m eager to get started and we have with us today Ashcon Nejad, Ricky Guest, Yvonne Pendleton, and Teague Soderman who will be joining us in a second. Welcome everybody! And, Evan, I understand you’re going to give us a general overview and we’ll do some introduction after the overview but we’ll do an overview about what SSERVI is and what you’re doing.
Yvonne: Sure. I’m happy to do that. So SSERVI is the newest virtual institute that NASA has put together and what we do is we study solar system objects including the moon, near Earth asteroids, and the moons of Mars. We have researchers across the country. We have about 318 to be exact and they are grouped in teams and these teams work together in virtual space, and then they also work with us virtually. We have a central office here at NASA Ames Research Center which is in Northern California. So my staff of about 15, we have what we call our central office and our central office oversees and gives the money to the research teams that are doing the really exciting cutting edge science and research exploration. So that’s how we operate. We have just started this is, our first year. We have five years of funding for the current set of teams but every 2-and-a-half years, we will be selecting a new set of teams that will merge in with the existing one so there’s always continuity. And the hope is that SSERVI will go on for a couple of decades. We’re hoping that this is something that will just grow as our human exploration of the solar system grows. We’re jointly funded I should tell you between the Science Mission Directorate of NASA and the Human Exploration Directorate of NASA. This is the first time that something like this has been jointly supported by those two endeavors and we really believe that science enables exploration and exploration enables science. So we’re trying to help answer the questions that you need to know before you go.
Lisette: Wow! You have 318 researchers across the world or the country?
Yvonne: Across the country but I’m glad you brought that up because we also have 8 international partners. The difference between a team and an international partner is that the domestic US teams have been competitively selected. They wrote proposals that went through the peer review process. The international partners also write a proposal but that doesn’t go through a peer review process. That goes through a high level review at NASA and in some cases, the state department depending on just how all-encompassing that partnership is whether it’s from space agency to space agency as is the case with Germany or whether it’s an affiliation with one or more universities in the country.
Lisette: Wow! So your staff of 15 is actually trying to get all of these people from across the country and around the world collaborating together on one common goal. Do I have that right?
Yvonne: That’s exactly right, the common goal being to advance science and exploration, the joint working together those two. The specific goals vary depending on what the team interests are and what the international partners are bringing to the table. And in some cases, it could be about the early evolution of the solar system, how we all came to be, and how the bombardment of the moon also affected the Earth, that kind of question. Another way could be to go out and collect field samples. Here on the Earth, we have a lot of places that are good analogues for what we think it would be like to be on an asteroid, or on the moon, or on Mars. And so by studying and learning how astronauts can work effectively in the field here, we could better prepare the astronauts that would later go to some of these more remote distance places. So it’s a very broad spectrum that includes many disciplines of science and has many applications to human exploration.
Lisette: I can imagine. I mean it seems like an extremely broad horizon of things to explore so I look forward to talking more challenges of the collaboration and the successes as we get into the conversation. Before we go further in though, I want to introduce and have the others introduce themselves. Ricky, why don’t you go ahead and let us know what you’re doing?
Ricky: Sure. I’m the Senior Systems Technical Specialist and so basically what I do is help the teams communicate with each other putting together the different technologies behind the tools that we use for them to be able to remotely connect and talk. So we’re constantly looking at new ways to do this, integrating the systems and not just the systems but the support behind it. We don’t just give them software or hardware and say, “Go do your thing.” We have a team of people that we help support and integrate these things into their everyday working life.
Lisette: So the implementation of tools as well as the tools themselves.
Ricky: Yes. Often we find if we just give them the tools, they won’t use them because they’re not comfortable with them and that’s not what they’re good at. They don’t need to know that stuff. They just need to know their science and be able to communicate with the other scientists and we’re there to help them try to make it seamless as possible so that they just show up, turn on their systems, and things just work, and they don’t have to worry about how it works. It just works and they can get right to doing the science that they need.
Lisette: Wow! I really look forward to diving into that further. I have heard about the implementation of tools on various teams and I’m curious the challenges that you run into on that and also the successes of how people like the tools, so very eager. Ashcon, how about you?
Ashcon: Sure. My name is Ashcon and I’m a Technical Systems Specialist here at SSERVI. Aside from facilitating the production of virtual events and collaborative seminars, and things like that, I also administer SSERVI’s web presence both on the front and the back end and additionally support both the central staff and the larger team across the globe with IT support as well.
Lisette: Wow! So you’ve got to communicate to the world via the website what exactly everybody’s doing.
Lisette: To the common man to have the common man understand the science behind what’s going on.
Yvonne: And I’d like to jump in here and say something about how spectacularly this team does that. And Ashcon and Ricky are two but we have a couple of others that are not here today who also help out. And what I’ve been so impressed by, Lisette, is the fact that they are willing to do this at any time of day or night. Sometimes last week, I guess, we just finished doing facilitating a meeting that originated in Paris so we were doing it on Paris time to make it easier for the participants that were local there. And Ricky and Ashcon just are so willing to makes themselves available at these really difficult times in the middle of the night here. And I think it’s because we all really believe in what we’re doing and we can see the effect that we’re getting more bang for the buck, more communication is happening that enables new science discoveries at the intersection of disciplines that otherwise might never [inaudible 8:45] and so I can’t thank them enough because without their work, we would have no way of doing the great stuff that we’re doing. So I just wanted to jump in and say that. I’m actually going to have to walk away now and go take another meeting but I want to let you get back to Ashcon but I know that he and Ricky will not boast about themselves the way they should and so I wanted to do a little bit of that before I have to say goodbye.
Lisette: Awesome! Thank you. It’s always good for some other people to have a voice behind them. The promotion.
Yvonne: Thank you. So I’m going to say goodbye now and I’m going to let Teague step in here but it was good talking to you. Good luck.
Lisette: So Teague, this is probably a great opportunity for you to introduce yourself.
Teague: Okay, let me raise my desk up a little bit here. My name is Teague Soderman. I’ll change my [inaudible 9:39].
Lisette: So no one’s confused.
Teague: And I am a Senior Science Writer here at SSERVI and so I wear several hats but one of them is communicating the science and the results that come out of our team collaborations through the public affairs office here at Ames Research Center as well as public affairs office at NASA headquarters. And so I’m working with news outlets, news agencies, I’m writing captions to photos and also sometimes translating science-ese into going to be understandable by a general public audience. I also help get funding for a scientific research and these brilliant scientists have brilliant ideas work with engineers and then pitch their concepts to NASA in order to receive funding for that research. The people making those funding decisions however are not experts in the field of heleophysics. They’re very often manager types and so the material that we have to produce must communicate concisely and quickly to the non-scientific audience but also hold up to scientific scrutiny by the experts in that field. So it’s quite a challenge to get something to communicate on multiple levels, multiple audiences, but we’ve had some good success. We’ve recently gotten some space missions funded and launched like NASA’s recent Ladee mission, LCROSS mission, and LRO, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which is taking some fantastic images of the Lunar surface at high resolution detail.
Lisette: Wow! That’s a real art to be able to talk between the common person and the scientist because there’s a lot of acronyms, there’s a lot of information, there’s a lot of detail that the common person just has never heard before. So how could they understand? So wow!
Teague: That’s a fun position to be in because it’s always changing. I never get bored. One month, it’s about the moon and another month it’s about the sun and helleophisics, sometimes nanotechnology, getting really, really itty-bitty with our science. And so it’s always changing and always influx and that keeps it interesting.
Lisette: So the first question that I really want to ask is so you’ve got these research teams and international partners all over the world. How did you start? How did you start the conversation of “We’re going to get everybody together.”? How does that happen even? I’ve been trying to set up a meeting between five people and it was hard so I can imagine 318 teams plus 8 international partners. How do you start?
Teague: Well, luckily, we started as the NASA Lunar Institute and we came SSERVI once the scope expanded beyond just the moon to include near Earth objects and the moons of Mars, etc. but we kind of got the chance to dial it into the Lunar Science Institute and that institute was modeled after a successful NASA Astrobiology Institute which is also a virtual institute and so we had some framework and some institute model to draw from for our continued success. In that NAI originally and Ricky has been part of the NAI as well for a long time. He can also talk about this but Barrack Bloomberg was a Nobel laureate who had a big hand in establishing the astrobiology institute and was a senior scientist here at the Lunar Science Institute before he passed away. And he was very keen on trying to come up with new paradigms for collaboration and wanted to do things like make new paths where people cut across the grass instead of walking the sidewalks and trying to facilitate what naturally is trying to occur. And so he I think had some fundamental insight into how to get the teams to collaborate. And we generally do an executive council meeting every month where we have our principal investigators, our PIs who lead each team or node of the institute so very often, we don’t communicate at all 300 scientists at once but we disperse information down or up from the institute here to those teams and nodes around the US, around the world, and then those principal investigators will also hold meetings with their larger team to discuss their science and the research happening. I don’t know if you can add anything.
Ricky: And then the only other thing, we do have an annual forum where we get a large group of people coming together usually in person but we do have a virtual aspect of that also so that it does cover both grounds so that people who can’t travel for one reason or another can still attend the forum. And so we have a large audience of both in person and virtual both can participate in that annual event.
Lisette: And how do people participate virtually? I understand you use Adobe Connect, is that also what you use for these meetings or is there something else?
Ricky: So Adobe Connect is a system much luck Web AX where it allows for video sharing, screen sharing, also chat. And it has a lot of features that we settled on for our team’s usage. So we don’t stick to just one technology. We chose Adobe Connect for that solution and we don’t use it all by itself. We use it in conjunction with a standard based video conferencing system so we sort of mix these different technologies so that there’s a high definition video in conjunction with nice screen sharing and recording capabilities. And so for a lot of our events, we really do that but we’re not married to those technologies. We’re constantly looking at other opportunities, other solutions that might fit better for different teams or for different events. We have used Google Hangouts and Google on Air in the past for other events and we’re always looking at new technologies trying to keep the pace and keep up with what’s out there and what our community might be interested in using. And so we’re always on the look for the latest and the newest to see if it fits what our teams might want to use.
Lisette: I can imagine that each system, each team really does need its own system based on however they work or whatever is good for them so I can see that that being one aspect. And another aspect I run into is it’s good to have a backup system so when Google Hangouts fails which does happen, it’s really good to be able to move to Go-to meeting or Skype or another system so it’s good to have the backup.
Ricky: Definitely. And we always want to make sure that we’re not just giving them the tools but we have a support system for them so if something’s not working, they can tell us and we can work those issues out and so they can just continue on with their science and we can make sure that the technology behind it gets working.
Lisette: So I want to dive deeper into this implementation aspect of the tools because I think that’s a really interesting part but, Ashcon, I want to give you a chance to say something before I just dive in. Is there anything else that you want to add to this?
Ashcon: I think just the key component and one that we not to boast or anything but just that we excel in through experience is primarily just the ability to accommodate all sorts of different technologies, all sorts of different people, different locations. That’s a key ingredient to what makes a lot of these events successful and a lot of these workshops collaborative and inviting. The forum particularly, it’s a conference, an in-person meeting. The idea is to come together as a group and find opportunities to collaborate with one another. And there’s a portion of that that doesn’t or could not translate well virtually but again, using the right technology, using the right resources available to these people, that’s how we can make it a successful event. And so it’s refreshing and always rewarding when we can facilitate that kind of stuff.
Lisette: So how do you go about learning about the tools? Is it just ear to the ground, people making suggestions doing the research?
Ashcon: Yeah, I mean there are obviously a lot of client companies within each specialty field so the companies like Cisco and Polycom when it comes to actual hardware video teleconferencing systems, the software companies like Adobe, and Google, and like LiveStream and UStream, things like that for the online component of it, and being able to stay ahead of the game or at least keep up with all the new releases involves a lot of research with the companies themselves staying on newsletters, checking up on the blogs that are related to this field, but additionally the actual in-person conferences so like the consumer electronics show. Although that might not highlight specific video teleconferencing systems in a commercial environment, it might highlight like the next series of webcams that consumers can buy. And those are things that can make someone’s office just like a small office space better. But then there are also the specialty conferences that are related to our professional audio video field like Infocom which was the recent one that we’ve gone to or like the Nabshow for broadcasters that’s a lot of audio and video components as well. And we kind of mix and match and take parts from all sorts of resources and we’re very good at being creative and kind of molding a system that works for us so it’s nice in that sense to be able to have that freedom of flexibility and putting different components together to create the perfect solution.
Lisette: As a nerd, I was actually at Infocom via robot. I’ve been in the suitable technologies and drove around and looked at all the gadgets. It was awesome.
Ashcon: I might have walked right by you.
Lisette: I was there with a friend. We were going to have virtual tea together via Skype and I said, “Hey, there’s this conference. We can be men in robots and have virtual tea together in Las Vegas. How does that sound?” So it was great. So let’s talk about the implementation of these tools for a bit. I think that’s really interesting because not everybody is good with technology and with the tools and even sometimes the simplest tool can be really difficult for teams so how do you help people find and use the tools that’s best for them?
Ashcon: Yeah, it’s very important to do things like one-on-one trainings or group training sessions or again, any type of communication resource available whether it be phone, or email, or whatever. It’s important for us to really stretch those resources and use them during training sessions. So if a client or a participant is getting ready to setup Google Hangouts for example, they’re going to need Google software to go with it, the drivers. And so if they get stuck during that, obviously, it’s whether or not a phone call works or screen sharing if that’s something that we’ve enabled in the past. Just to work with them one-on-one, we’re very personal in that sense and the customer service is essentially the key ingredient here. It’s very important to work with them one-on-one or in a group setting again to really just work through any type of issues. And we do this so often that we really do know like the back of our hand, we know exactly if this error message comes up, we know exactly what that means.
Ashcon: And the minimum requirements for all sorts of things, we know it’s easy for us to figure those out on a fly.
Ricky: And then each of our teams has an IT lead and so we work with all those leads, get all those leads trained up to make sure that they can handle any of these small things that their local guys might have any issues with. And if they have any larger issues, they can come to us and we can work with them directly so that the scientists don’t have to worry about it. But it’s getting all the IT leads well trained. And then for individual events like Ashcon said, we do like to do a little short 5 to 10 training session with everybody that might be presenting so that they’re comfortable that they’re not going the first time they try to figure out what to do and so that they have a sense of what to do. They already know it so it’s much more comfortable for them. So it’s definitely about making sure the presenters are comfortable and don’t have to worry about the technology. It then just go smoothly.
Lisette: It sounds ideal, this one-on-one training but how has it scaled? You have a lot of people to train.
Ricky: There are times where we’ve had to train for a large event, 60 people, and we have 4 or 5 people on our staff that can do that training so then we just break it up over the week before the event and it only takes about 5 to 10 minutes. And in some cases, we can do a group training where several people can all log in together and then we’ll just sort of pass the host of the presentation capabilities to each person. And then they can learn from the previous person’s mistakes or successes, seeing how they do it and it’s like, “Oh, okay.” And then it gets a little easier for the next one to then turn on the camera, upload a file, advance slides, things like that, and so especially after doing it a few times, as the trainer does get simple and somebody has an issue whether it’s a Mac or a PC, it’s like, “Okay, yeah, I’ve seen that before. Just go do this.” On occasion, there are new errors that we haven’t seen and we’ll sort of take those up to the side and then try and work offline with those people so that their systems do go up and running eventually. So we don’t leave anybody without getting the support that they need.
Teague: We should also note that when institute takes on a new team, we give them the specs and sort of requirements for a minimum technology acquisition that they then go and acquire, the screens, and the computers, and the tech that will sort of help provide a common platform to use in our future collaborations. And then Ricky’s mentioned also helping them through any of the tech stuff. Occasionally though actually, fly out to that location to configure their systems accordingly. And on super special events, if it’s really important, go into headquarters, NASA headquarters. Occasionally, we’ve had a staff person fly out to Washington DC in order to make sure that they’re connected, we’ll test the systems, and make sure that we’re not going to have an embarrassing glitch during some important NASA headquarter seminar. So that also helps when we have some commonalities in technology and that then helps us know that we’ll have a handle on the system. And then you’re accommodating the person on their cell phone or some other technology that’s coming in. You’re limiting the number of sort of new devices and connections that might come in and play.
Lisette: So I can imagine that being in such close contact with people helps really personalize this whole experience as well. I mean you’re really getting to know every single person. I mean a 5-minute conversation can make a huge difference if you need to talk to somebody on video. So when you send out the specs, are these more technology specs or are there also like team agreements for how you’re going to communicate with each other, the more personal aspects, or do you also have sort of those kind of agreements that are in place with people?
Ashcon: With respect to the technology kind of particular components, we’ll send the hardware and specific equipment that don’t need to procure to establish a good connection and a well lit and just an overall good-looking production. Now that being said, perhaps you’re talking about the etiquette of like the virtual event and how one would carry themselves and how communication is flowed and things like that. And we do that very well here at SSERVI with Yvonne during executive council meetings, there’s a set structure. And so initially, it takes one, usually no more than one meeting for everyone to kind of get the flow of how everything goes and the way that’s nice with our system is that at least, at all times, all participants can see each other and it different than being in person with one another but with high definition video on big screens, you still get a little bit of that intimate kind of close nearby essences. And so we don’t really run into problems with people carrying themselves or communicating efficiently and effectively and usually, that’s not a problem for us.
Lisette: Oh interesting because in many of the interviews I do, one of the main problems with remote collaboration is people say, “I’ve never had an online meeting that’s worked well.”
Lisette: So it sounds like you guys have mastered this just by the one-on-one training, having sort of the hands-on. Is there anything else that you’re doing to make this etiquette work?
Ashcon: We just try really hard to make the technology itself as transparent as possible. It’s important for the far side or the remote participants that they should see how the technology really works. Like Ricky said earlier, it’s important for them to be able to walk into a room, sit down, and be able to immediate engage with anyone else involved or in they’re in the comfort of their own home, it should be seamless for them to have a natural flowing conversation. And we pride ourselves in being able to support that. Really, a couple training sessions here and there but really, it is the combination of technologies we use and the level of personal interaction that we accommodate for that make it really homerun I think.
Ricky: And we do get the occasional where two people are trying to talk and you don’t hear either one of them so I mean there’s always going to be some of that where you’re trying both to get your point across but eventually, a flow is worked out of, “Okay, now you can go and then I’ll wait, and then the next person can talk.” But those are minor and those will happen all the time. And those will happen in in-person meetings also.
Teague: And I think the [inaudible 31:11] put together the document on best practices for virtual collaborations like say things like mute your mike when you’re not talking and wait for someone that stop before talking over them.
Teague: And those best practices sort of really do also help with the flow of our meetings.
Ashcon: Yeah, often times, you do these meetings so very much that the process, the procedure to set things up becomes almost like second nature for you and so not only are collaborative team here locally but also remote, our IT plant contacts that are various teams. We have various levels of checklists and documentation write-ups to help kind of aid either new coming IT support specialists or existing ones that perhaps it just skipped their mind or something but we have these documents readily available for all sorts of different levels of support people or even just participants. We have all these available. And additionally, we have YouTube like training videos and so we record kind of offline little tutorials. Ricky’s done one about how to essentially join a Connect meeting that we would host. And so these little things cover the basics of starting your webcam, starting your microphone, how to chat, and how to share content, things like that. We might not be available sometimes for that one-on-one training or maybe the remote participant is on travel and doesn’t have the opportunity to sit in on a training session so we can give them this documentation and allow them to kind of train themselves at the earliest convenience.
Lisette: So it sounds like you’ve got a lot of things in place for making this work. And what I’m curious about is what’s not working? What do you struggle with in this system?
Ashcon: Accommodating schedules is sometimes a difficult thing especially when you’re dealing with scientists. There’s always conferences, there’s time zone differences, there are meetings, there are countless numbers of meetings, and things that are going on so sometimes it does get to the point where we’re rescheduling training sessions so often that it may not happen so then we resort to another way of giving them resources and things like that. So that’s one difficulty and that happens quite a bit.
Ricky: So another thing that there’s oftentimes a workshop where they’re sort of scheduling it as if it’s a completely in person workshop where it might be 8-hour day so it’s one day 8-hour session. Those don’t work well for a virtual event because you get much more fatigue for a remote participant.
Lisette: Oh interesting.
Ricky: So if they bring this in early enough on these scheduling of events, we find that if you break it up to like 4 hours, no more than 4 hours over maybe a couple of days, it’s a much better experience for the remote participant because watching the screen for 4 hours is much more fatiguing than actually in a real matter at a table. You tend to get up more often if you’re in person. And you’re not looking at that same distance that’s in screen the whole time and so definitely, the attention span I think isn’t as great if you’re doing an 8-hour virtual event as opposed to 2, 4 hour events. So little things like that that we’re trying to bring into the equation during the planning process or oftentimes, that’s out of our hands. They come to us already saying, “This is our set in-person schedule” then the virtual people have to just sort of fit into that and so that’s always a difficulty trying to keep the numbers of connected virtual people. They don’t have a day high because they tend to drop off after a certain amount of time or their retention of what’s being said also drops off after a certain amount of hours.
Teague: Speaking of dropping off, these two guys do a great job of trying to accommodate new technologies coming out and all kinds of different technologies, different browsers, computers, and now handheld devices, and mobile devices. And we’ve had some trouble with the mobile devices just in the conductivity issues so your data perhaps, they don’t really have a good bandwidth going, and so then their participation suffers because they’re dropping out or they’re stuttering on their screen, or they drop out entirely. And if we’re not prepared for it, the meeting will announce so and so has left the meeting or something and that can be a distraction so those are some additional challenges we’ve run across in trying to accommodate the mobile devices.
Lisette: And what about with data we share? I mean I’m making the assumption. Maybe I’m wrong. The scientists are trying to share data together. What are you using for that? I mean that must be huge challenges there.
Ashcon: Well, for incidents to give you an example, like the forum, our latest exploration science forum last year, we were under still the NLSI Lunar Science Institute. We had the virtual Lunar Science forum. During these forums, the presentations are all about the science that these teams and these specialists have been working on over the last year and so a lot of new discoveries and things like that so just like an in recent conference, it’s a presentation and so they will be able to upload their slides, share their screen in some cases, but essentially, at the same time, you can see the person at the virtual environment. You can see the presenter, their face. Then you can also see their slides. And that’s for us at least, one of the most effective ways if they have animations, if they have movies, we can always accommodate that and it comes across with respect to no data being lost. They’re not having any problems really translating their science information virtually. So that’s worked really well for us.
Teague: Also, Ashcon is developing a database for sharing files and data as well with a secure place online that’s easily accessible anywhere on the world for teams to upload or download graphs, images, data products, those kinds of things to facilitate their sharing.
Ricky: It’s kind of like a Dropbux but a much more secure system for our teams to be able to share those kind of data and be accessible to a large file sets. So that’s hopefully soon to be coming out for our teams.
Ashton: Yeah. Yeah, that’s it. I mean for example, Google does this very well with their suite of drive applications like Google docs, Google sheets. We’re very much looking at that same kind of process, that same system except the idea is well this is very oftentimes sensitive but perhaps not unclassified, not classified information. But still, the nature of these reports are things that haven’t been published yet and so these kinds of things can’t live on servers that aren’t in secure locations on federal ground and things like that. That’s when we can come in and accommodate these types of systems for them.
Lisette: And then security then an issue. Oh, Teague, you were about to say something?
Teague: No. I was going to talk about the Lunar Mapping and Modeling portal as another instance of relating data sets and sharing but I can talk more about that later.
Lisette: No, let’s go into that. That sounds great actually. Yeah, my question can wait.
Teague: Well I had and I actually have, I can send you, a fantastic video of the lunar mapping and modeling portal project. They actually had on our Lunar Explorations Science Forum in July, they have a demo of a touch screen tabletop display that was taking existing data sets from our various teams and rendering them and allowing them to overlay. So for example, we had a high def image of the moon. This is the moon at the centimeter scale resolution. And then one team was researching the properties of the [inaudible 40:23], where was the iron deposits or the water sources, and so they laid their data set out over the surface of the moon and you can see now blue areas where there was some possible water ice, some red areas where there were possible iron deposits. And then another team had been studying the slope profiles and they were trying a mission planning for a rover to find out, “Okay, if we had a day on the lunar surface and we could explore for a few hours, what are the best parts to explore? And now they had overlaid the slope profiles, they could see where their rover could climb or couldn’t climb and they saw the overlaid data of what was in the soil and so in real time and collaboratively with their data sets overlaid, they could plan for the best course of rover to go and least amount of time, visit the best spots, and get some ground crews on what are remote sensing satellites have detected. It was just one example that was very cool feature of the forum. The forum is every year around the Apollo anniversary, July 20th around, and so I want to invite anybody who’s here watching this to tune in remotely next year or come in person and visit this forum. They’ll learn all about the latest cutting edge science research going on at NASA and of all of our partners who come every year to share the latest and greatest science research that’s coming out of their offices and use cool things like the lunar mapping and modeling portal. I’ll send you a video so you’ll have some actual context of what I was talking about.
Lisette: I would love to promote that.
Teague: Also at these forums, we often demo new technology Ashcon Nejad had been working on integrating Google Glass for example so how could Google Glass be used in a collaborative research environment. And so we had some demos of that as well as Ricky has identified the local double robotics vendor in Sunnyvale here in Silicon Valley who produced a very inexpensive robot for virtual participants to cruise, actually roll around and explore the forum and some of the talks and some of the posters and things that you could see. We have poster sessions where everyone hangs the posters of their research and they can actually virtually walk down the hall and look at these posters, maybe even snap a picture of a QR code that takes them to a website for more details, and offering that to the public has been wildly successful. That’s actually how Lisette and I met first on one of these virtual robot tours. So please come and visit us next year. Look us up on our website, sservi.nasa.gov as July rolls around and figure out how you can participate.
Lisette: Oh yeah. That’s on the calendar. So I want to quickly ask about the robot because of course, when I saw, I was on the mailing list and I saw the news about “Oh, come take a tour in a robot,” and of course I mean I had to do it right away. I just signed up immediately. But what was the idea behind the robot and why did you initially, was it to give the public tours, or did you have some other ideas in mind for your virtual collaboration amongst your team members?
Ricky: For the robots themselves, our initial idea was for a few members to remotely attend meetings here locally or just pop in and talk to people at the central office, not only our team members but also individual central office staff that may be traveling and or working from home for one reason or another, could just quickly pop in and talk to somebody down the hall, things like that but not just limited to those but that was the initial idea, also to make it available for other events where we could make somebody who couldn’t travel to an in-person meeting then pop in that meetings. And so then the tour stuff sort of just expanded from that as an opportunity to show others this is the kind of technologies that we’re using and we leave it up to the general public to able to pop in and do a little quick drive and see what it’s like to do this kind of virtual attendance.
Teague: And our director periodically makes site visits at the nodes around the country and around the world. Sometimes, there’s a new facility that comes online for example, our University of Colorado partners created a dust accelerator that was really exciting and so she’ll go and do these site visits. Well if we had robots at these key nodes, you would be able to log in and actually be able to tour our facility or like Ricky said for one of our PIs coming to visit SSERVI Central, we do the same kind of thing in popping over to their institute rolling down the hall and having a discussion with the principal investigator. So that was another feature potentially used for this double robotics.
Ricky: So a lot of times, we will get the technologies and try them out ourselves before we try and get the other teams to implement them. So that would be the ideas that we have one or two robots at each team’s site that then could be used amongst the teams as well as the central office to be able to pop in and talk to people directly at a more casual style than a telecon or a video telecon would enable.
Lisette: Like a scheduled Skype conversation, the mobility I think that really adds another level of being able to walk down the hall with somebody to go to the office. You’re shaking your head so I’m onto something there.
Lisette: So the mobility of the robots.
Teague: Yeah, I think for the unscheduled meetings where you don’t have to have a big figure out this schedule, Ashcon mentioned sometimes just getting people together for a virtual meeting can be a challenge. But these robots would allow more of the improvisational connections and so you might pop in, go and visit somebody, you find out they’re out of their office but because you’re mobile, and it’s not just waiting for someone’s computer screen. You can actually walk down to the next door and say, “Hey, Charlie, do you know when Carl is going to be back?” and you’re pretty independent that way. So I think it would be very exciting for some of the improvisational visits and ways to collaborate in that unscheduled timeframe.
Ashcon: Yeah, also with our conferences too going back to our forum and things, we have a lot of times people who aren’t able to travel and the mobility on a robot gives them the chance to go look at the posters. We have an in-room poster session so there are hundreds of posters, different topics, and having this robot available, now you can meet with your colleague, walk over to a poster, you have a camera, you can start looking at the poster, you can start interacting with the poster presenter himself or herself, and really engage in conversation that way in addition to having the virtual poster session online which we accommodate as well. We’ll let everyone upload their posters online and then there’s a comment section, the abstracts there, there are YouTube videos, there are audio voice-overs for presenters to give their kind of two-cents about what they want you to take away from their poster. And so having all these again available really makes for an interactive and engaging experience.
Lisette: Yeah, I can imagine. Even though you have the poster online and people can see if they can go online, there is something different about being at the conference with people and looking at the poster and somebody’s next you and you can just say, “Hey, what do you think?” or not having the thought.
Ashcon: Especially for students also because they might not be at the level for an oral presentation just yet and or maybe their research is more into poster presentation and so it’s a great way for them to have more experience with public interaction and public speaking and really conveying their science to their peers and so that’s really important and that’s something that is hard to translate virtually but it’s a skill that you’ll build in person more so than online.
Lisette: So this actually brings up a question for me which is when people work together in the office, there is lots of improv time, there’s the water cooler time, the casual conversation. Do you have those times? Do you schedule those kinds of things for your virtual teams? Is that something that you do? I know some people who have virtual lunches like my friend and I have virtual tea?
Lisette: It seems important for collaboration.
Ashcon: Right. Our technologies are open to our team members 24/7 from anywhere, anytime, they have dedicated virtual environments, virtual rooms that they can go to at any moment’s notice, and they can log in and they can start engaging in conversation, they can share files back and forth, they can see each other, whatever they want to do. It’s always available for them. And especially when we’re hosting virtual events, we like to take into account the fact that it is online and so the agenda should accommodate virtual breaks. And during those breaks, we could open up the chat for a more public engagement, a more group discussion, or we can group people into smaller groups and have them kind of talk amongst themselves and things like that. So we try hard to kind of mirror as much as we can from the in-person stuff to the online environment. And it’s only getting better. Technology advances everyday and what we have right now is great but I mean it’s only going to get better moving forward into the future I think.
Lisette: I have one question from the audience which is interesting because it actually brings up something. It’s a funny question but maybe I’ll start with “Do you work at all with any of the astronauts or people that are actually in space? Do you have sessions with them as well?”
Ashcon: [Inaudible 51:26]
Ricky: Just that we do work with Yvonne Cagle who is an astronaut who has been into space so yes, we do work with the actual astronauts. And in exploration side of our research of course, we are very interested in accommodating for human exploration and so human factors become a big issue and roll into some of our research. What was the second part of the question there besides interacting with the astronauts? You were asking how we did that?
Lisette: Well the question from the audience was “How can you trust people to do work when they’re all the way up in space?” but I think that actually applies to any of your virtual teams, that comes up in every single interview which is the main resistance to working virtually for people is that they don’t trust that people are actually doing the work.
Teague: Right. Well astronauts are on a very strict schedule and their time up there is precious because it’s limited resources and it takes a lot to deliver things to the space station. Unfortunately, from space, you really can only connect back to Earth virtually. There is no other way.
Teague: To work and collaborate with us so we’re fortunate that the people on international space station for example, we recently had a team who worked with the astronauts to remotely deploy an antenna on Earth via a robot as a mission scenario for remotely deploying that antenna on the moon. So this was actual astronauts in space station command and controlling a robot to do science research and they did that fantastically. They are pros at connecting virtually through all these kinds of collaborative methods so it really went off without a hitch.
Lisette: Yeah, on top of being superhumans.
Teague: Yeah, [inaudible 53:17].
Lisette: Indeed. But in terms of this trust issue, to me it seems like “Wow! It’s NASA. These are all professionals. Everybody has the same vision and it’s an inspiring vision.” So you would think, “Oh, we can trust people there.” Does that come up?
Teague; Go no, Ricky.
Ricky: So as our teams go, I mean they’re only funded for certain amount of years to do a specific job and so if they don’t do succeed even in the proposal, they may not get funded for the next round. So it’s upon them to do the job and do it well or else they won’t get funded and they won’t be part of the team. So that’s a simple carrot for them to do well.
Teague: There’s a lot of trust and ultimately comes down to results. And if they’re publishing and their research is helping NASA in its mission, then they’ll continue to be funded and continue be teams with SSERVI. If not, then it’s likely that someone else in the next round of funding proposals will supplant them with a new research effort that may be more promising.
Lisette: It’s interesting that you say this as one of the host, a building trust on remote teams workshop and I think the number one tip I give is you have to go to being results oriented instead of time oriented. Normally, we pay people to work in an office a certain amount of time and they get paid for that time. And with remote teams I think, you have to move to tasks, what are they getting done, what’s the accomplishments, are they meeting their goals, are they hitting their objectives.
Lisette: So glad to hear it’s the same with NASA. So we’re nearing the end of the hour, I’m noticing. I could go on forever but I want to be sensitive of the time. Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you guys want to tell me about your experience with remote teams or something that you would have hoped that I would have asked that I ran out of time now? I just want to leave some space for extra things.
Teague: I would just invite people watching to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. We’ve got 50,000 people so far following us. The number seems to grow all the time. And we’re periodically putting out little news stories about what’s happening in NASA, what’s happening with our teams, and so just come and participate and join us.
Lisette: So what is the Twitter handle where people can find you?
Ashcon: You could find us at #NASA_lunar but also we’re transitioning. That was from our Lunar Science Institute handle which is verified but we have a new Twitter also flowing in at #moonandbeyond.
Lisette: Great, great. And the website again, I think, sservi.nasa.gov so if people want to have information about the website, and I’ve got the link for where people can schedule a robot tour. Is that still happening?
Teague: The robot tours have been put on hold right now due to resource restraints but we’re getting to be busy in finalizing our end of the year activities but we do plan on offering them again and especially I imagine around next year’s forum. So stay tuned on the website. We’ll post something when that becomes available again. Right now, we’re not offering the tour at this time.
Lisette: Okay. But they’re coming up again so people can hope and they can email. And they can follow you on Twitter and I’m sure you have a newsletter I know so there are plenty of ways to get in touch and to keep in touch on what’s happening there. It’s very exciting research. I really appreciate speaking with you guys today. I probably have a dozen follow up questions but I’ll email those or we can schedule another interview in the future. So thank you. I really appreciate it.
Ashcon: It was a pleasure.
Teague: Yeah, a pleasure.
Lisette: Alright. I’m going to go ahead and stop the broadcast. Until next time everybody, be powerful.