This post is part one of an interview with former NASA engineer Alex Smith on Agile Communications.

On a space mission, swift and accurate decision making is vital. NASA pioneered the idea of a centralized command center back in 1960 as a way to improve the speed and accuracy of decision making by placing key decision makers in the same room with all the relevant information at their fingertips. This collaborative approach spawned the creation of war rooms and is now adopted by cutting-edge enterprises.

I sat down with Alex Smith, a former software engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and now the lead visualization engineer at Zignal Labs, to learn how enterprises can use a command center approach to improve decision making and collaboration. You can hear more from Alex in our webinar on “How to Build an Agile Digital Communications Team.”


Tom Howells: How did the command center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab operate?

Alex Smith: A spacecraft mission is very complicated — every satellite has 20 different instruments on a computer platform and each one has a team to deal with the data that’s sent back to earth. All the sensors from the satellite output signals are displayed on the big screens of the command center at the front of the room, mostly as command line interface — a completely text-based interface. Someone in the know monitors their screen in case an alert pops up and follows a particular protocol when an alert appears — this usually involves opening up an instruction manual and one of 50 different tools, depending on the instrument. Each person in the command center has a different role based on the instrument with which they work.

TH: So a big draw of a command center is the collaboration aspect?

AS: That’s exactly the problem we aimed to solve with the command center. In the initial design, there was a lot of politics involved in deciding what gets on the screen and determining how to distill the most valuable toolset into the simplest form while ensuring it’s still valuable to everyone. We aimed to improve the workflow between seeing something and taking action. But, changing the layout of the command center that everyone likes and has used for a long time could potentially cost billions of dollars, so we decided to have a set of screens that stay put for a long time. In the end, while everyone worked independently on their alerts to respond in real time, the fact that we worked in an open, transparent environment meant we worked faster to resolve issues.

TH: It sounds like it’s imperative to keep evaluating what is displayed on the screens to make sure the content is up to date and useful?

AS: You want to be able to customize the display based on the audience. Keep in mind the space should be visually stunning as well as functional to lure people into the command center. If someone from a department usually not involved with a command center walks by, say accounting, and notices all the data on display, they may see a benefit in using the room to analyze data in real-time for an event. The room can then be reconfigured for the accounting team so they can collaborate with the command center team. A bonus from this new partnership is the command center team learns how the accounting team collects data and what they do with it. These insights can then guide how reports are sent to the accounting team in the future to give them more useful insights on a daily basis. One of the best aspects of a command center is the organic communities that grow where people from different backgrounds talk about data together.

TH: You were saying the screens at NASA show a lot of command line interface, which is fine as the people looking at the screens are well-versed in analyzing data and work with this kind of interface every day. But in the enterprise, how crucial are visualizations for professionals who aren’t as technical?

AS: It’s vitally important. Visualizations draw people into a space and make complicated things appear simple. It was a fun process to build a command center from the ground up at Zignal and improve on the methodology at NASA. My biggest thing was it had to be adaptable to the user and visually stunning. We knew this was a problem in the enterprise as we’d already seen teams put dashboards meant for a desktop computer on a couple of big 50-inch monitors in a war room. To optimize our command center for the big screen, we created completely new sets of visualizations that could be seen from a distance like Spidey and worked with our design team to find a color scheme so everything would stand out.

If you want to hear more from Alex Smith and his exploits at NASA, watch the recording of our webinar: “Build an Agile Digital Communications Team.”