3 IT lessons from NASA’s data visualization expert Rachel Binx

Data visualization specialist Rachel Binx is a trained art historian and designer whose role at NASA involves visualizing real-time data transmissions from spacecrafts, including the Cassini and Mars rover Curiosity. Her team’s primary projects include visualizing Event Verification Records (EVRs), or coded text messages describing events taking place in space missions and other “numeric data” sent at 30-second intervals.

The team’s success hinges on two separate, but related, factors: the speed of visualization and the team’s ability to optimize their visualizations for their audience—in this case, NASA specialists and engineers. While the vast majority of IT decision-makers aren’t visualizing text message data from Mars or doing anything even remotely as cool, Binx’s work holds lessons for those of us working in IT on Earth. Here are three important lessons from NASA’s “human interfaces” group.

1. Simple is usually better

While Binx has a background in truly complex visualizations, including “GIF-printing,” her work with NASA is designed to provide critical information that can be easily understood—usefulness is more valuable than flashiness. Even beyond the realm of data visualization, the idea of valuing simplicity above flash is an idea with serious impact.

Simplicity is a core value of some of the world’s most successful tech companies, including Apple. According to CIO, this comes to life in Apple’s focus on delivering products that are easy to use; the company targets efforts on areas where it can provide impact and says “no” to products that are unnecessarily complex.

Simplicity can take a lot of forms in corporate IT, but it has the potential to enhance end-user satisfaction while cutting back on waste. By cutting-back on time spent in meetings, focusing on the easiest solution, and developing a culture of saying “no,” you could transform the way your team works.

2. Focus on relevant long-term trends

Another primary goal of Binx’s team is to visualize data that reveals long-term trends. If Binx’s team were to visualize a single EVR message displaying disappointing mission results, it would offer limited intelligence into the true status of the Mars rover. In contrast, a series of text messages that indicate the rover’s status over time could offer deeper insight into the health of a NASA mission.

Taking a temporal, or time-based overview of your IT team’s goals can be the best way to align your actions with strategy. A long-term IT roadmap can help you avoid being lost in the weeds of day-to-day activities, while providing guidance for:

  • Leadership discussions
  • Improved resource planning
  • Functional leadership and delivery
  • Creating individual and team performance metrics

Whether you’re looking back or looking forward, understanding how your department’s goals and resources are trending over time can be far more helpful than focusing on single events.

3. Don’t “reinvent the wheel”

Many of Binx’s efforts, including the exploration of “quick, elastic search possibilities,” are setting the groundwork for future projects. The ability to reuse efforts and the research involved is enabled by the fact that NASA’s various missions all use similar data formats. This offers the team a big advantage over many industry data scientists and analysts. eWeek recently reported that more than one-third of business intelligence professionals spend between 50 and 90 percent of their time preparing data for analysis, resulting in the unfortunate job title: “data janitor.”

The most basic definition of “productivity” in any domain is outputs given inputs. When your IT team is called upon to solve problems, it can be helpful to look toward:

  • Internal and external subject matter experts
  • Existing implementations
  • Established best practices

By leveraging existing knowledge resources, from case studies to individual experience to templates and automation tools, you can significantly increase your output. Developing a culture where “reinventing the wheel” is viewed as the last resort, as opposed to the status quo, can significantly increase productivity.

Actively monitoring the safety and success of NASA’s missions through data visualization of real-time event reports may not look anything like the day-to-day workload of a typical IT team, but there are still valuable lessons to be learned. For Binx and team, aiming for simplicity, focusing on time-driven measurement, and sticking with the familiar, is key to success.

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