Emma Antunes embraces social media for collaboration

NASA's Spacebook shows agencies how to bring employees together to share ideas and expertise.

In less than a year, NASA’s internal social networking tool has become one of the most talked-about examples of how government can use Web 2.0 technology. Emma Antunes, Web manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, was project manager for Spacebook and is a vocal advocate for using Web 2.0 tools to help agencies become more efficient and effective. She shares her views on why government agencies are interested in social networking and what the technology can do for them.

I see social media as an extension of existing tools. If you look at how e-mail revolutionized the workplace, social media is just an extension of that. People already work together, so how do we make that even easier for them?

Most agencies aren’t saying, “Give us the code for Spacebook.” They’re saying, “Wow, what was the thinking that went into creating that? How can we do that?”

The biggest thing is it is a culture change effort. There are a lot of challenges. For instance, how do you implement something that your users will like but that also helps them? And it can’t be more complicated than what they are already doing.

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There are a lot of tools that are designed to be simple. They are not trying to be one-size-fits-all or tools that do everything for everybody. People used to go to My Yahoo for everything, but that’s really not true so much today. Now they have a piece here and a piece there. They use Twitter for some things, Facebook for others, Slideshow for others.

I invited Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemistry professor at Drexel University, to give a talk at Goddard because he is doing open-notebook science. He records his experiments and then posts them on YouTube. He takes pictures of the results so you can see all the samples on Flickr. He puts all the data from the experiments on Google spreadsheets.

The amount of integration he has is amazing. He uses all these free tools to do science, and that’s what’s so exciting when we look at social media in a business context. What are those simple things that when chained together become really powerful?

I’ve looked at research about what happens when you get people from different disciplines working together. That’s really what crowdsourcing is: No one person has all of the answers, but when you get enough people with enough different perspectives, they can figure out together that maybe a project was going down the wrong direction.

In our culture, we get highly specialized and specific, but we don’t always have the expertise to realize that there are advances in related fields.

One of my favorite examples is astronomy and computational astrophysics. With astronomy, you may be looking at a problem that computer science has already solved. Maybe a certain computer modeling problem was figured out a long time ago. That’s what computational astrophysics does.

NASA figured this out a long time ago: Putting scientists and engineers on the same project helps projects. But even then, they are completely different cultures and they speak different languages.

That’s why Spacebook isn’t something everybody would use in the exact same way in their agencies because you have to understand who your audience is, what kind of workforce you have.

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