Death Star Response Inspiring Future Explorers?

we the people Death Star petitionThe White House response to a petition on building a Death Star (and the resulting media attention) led to some pretty interesting data here at While the petitioners wanted to focus on a big project done a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the response led to thousands of Americans finding out about projects NASA is currently working on right here on Earth and in our Solar System.

One example is a reference to NASA’s Spot the Station tool, which helps direct people to where and when to see the International Space Station in the night sky. Over 10,000 people signed up for the tool on Jan. 12, the day after the blog response was posted. Compared to similar periods, NASA saw a 1,400% increase in Spot the Station site usage.

Both NASA’s Mars Curiosity and International Space Station pages had their highest traffic days of the month on Jan. 12. Both saw a jump in page views between one and two times the monthly average.

The impact on NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO) page was huge. Traffic to the site increased about 200x between Jan. 10 – 12. The traffic over that weekend represents more than half the traffic to that page for the entire month.

The White House response goes on to mention NASA’s Kepler mission, the Voyager mission, the Solar Probe Plus mission, the agency’s upcoming James Web Telescope, and the free-flying Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES).

One major goal of NASA and the Administration is to encourage students to take interest in science, math, engineering and technology. Maybe the idea of a Death Star petition wasn’t so crazy. Maybe a few future explorers were inspired by some of NASA’s space missions.

And if Star Wars fans need something spacey to watch while waiting for Star Wars: Episode VII to arrive in theaters, why not tune into NASA’s YouTube Channel and see some of the amazing things being done by folks here on planet Earth.

Image Above: The White House response to the We The People “Death Star” petition, with click-throughs highlighted. View the full size image here.

What Does 'Content As Data' Mean, Anyway?

Editor’s Note: Jim Wilson is Senior Producer of and served on detail as project manager for the .Gov Reform Task Force, which helped develop the Digital Government Strategy.

The newly released Digital Government Strategy calls for a fundamental shift in how government treats digital information, taking an information-centric approach and treating all content as data. But what exactly does “content as data” mean?

Many of us probably hear the word “data” and think of a long list of facts and figures or maybe that android guy from “Star Trek.” But here we’re talking about “structured data,” which is just a fancy way of saying we build our content so that it can be read by machines as well as humans. If you’ve ever subscribed to a podcast or an RSS news feed, you were using this idea.

So what would this look like, and how could it help the government reach citizens? Well, we already know, because we’re already doing it.

Here at NASA, we consume a lot of our own data. This means that we structure things like press releases, images and videos so they can be syndicated across the site and subscribed to by users. Our entire collection of videos on  is presented this way. Anytime a new video is published, it gets added to the appropriate feed, which automatically get pulled into the appropriate pages, without having to manually add to pages and publish multiple times.

Shuttle page using data feeds homepage using dynamic feeds to provide updates on STS-135 mission. 

Our most high-profile use of this technique came during the final flight of the space shuttle in July 2011, when we set up a special version of the homepage with multiple data feeds from around the country. At any given time, users could see a real-time text stream of mission updates, as well as the latest videos and photos from the mission. This information could be updated from multiple sources in Florida, Texas, Washington, DC and elsewhere. And the homepage itself rarely had to be touched. Simply by setting up the feeds, NASA let all the data flow into a single, easily accessible place. The page was tweeted more than 8.000 times and got more than 42,000 likes on Facebook.

Another example of this approach is the “create once, publish everywhere” mindset used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to liberate its content from presentation. In other words, you don’t have to go to their webpage and look at the information in their look-and-feel. You can get the information directly from them in lots of different places, on your terms.

So how does that work?

CDC’s content is structured in tagged so that it can be syndicated and consumed both within the agency and externally. Within its own channels, content is updated once then easily displayed on the main web site, the mobile site at, and in the various modules of the CDC mobile app. In 2011, CDC’s liberated content was syndicated to 700 registered partners in all 50 US states, the District of Columbia and 15 countries and accounted for an additional 1.2 million page views.

Opening government information in this way has huge potential. Citizens can take content and mash it up to fit their unique needs, while private sector firms can develop government data-driven apps that the government couldn’t build on its own.

We want our users to get the content however they want. If it’s good for them to come to our site, great. But if they can get the information they need some other way, just as great. Our mission, after all, isn’t driving up page views to our homepage; it’s providing the best digital information and services to citizens. and Social Media: Where Do They Meet?

We released our last redesign in 2007. Since then social media have exploded and changed how people get information online. Social media have also raised the question of whether its participants are using their newer tools more exclusively, or are they still visiting existing web sites.

One of the questions we ask in our customer-satisfaction survey is how frequently a visitor accesses certain kinds of content or engages in particular activities. They respond on a scale of 1 (never) to 5 (always). Here are the results for 2011, with each activity, followed by the percentage of people who answered 3, 4, or 5 (in other words, with some frequency), and then the percentage of people who answered 1 (never).

Images: 86%, 4%
Feature stories & news updates: 81%, 6%
Video Features: 70%, 10%
NASA TV streaming: 48%, 28%
Interactive Features: 48%, 23%
NASA calendar: 45%, 27%
Bookmark or tag pages: 32%, 43%
e-Mail updates: 28%, 57%
Read blogs: 26%, 47%
Use social networks to find out about NASA: 22%, 65%
myNASA: 27%, 53%
Podcasts: 20%, 57%
Add comments, ratings or reviews: 19%, 60%

No surprises at the top. Images and video have been the most popular elements on the site since I started editing it in 1995. The most interesting thing to me is that 2/3 of respondents say they don’t use social media to find out about NASA. We have a related question asking people what other tools besides do they use to find out about NASA. The responses:
  Watch NASA video on YouTube: 37%  
Visit newsmedia sites like 27%  
  Other: 20%  
  Participate in online communities like Facebook regarding NASA missions: 12%  
  Read blogs: 9%  
  Follow NASA Twitter feeds: 9%  
  RSS feeds: 5%  
  None: 5%  
  SMS/Texting: 1%  

Taken together, the two questions suggest that NASA’s web audience and social-media audiences are still distinct, only overlapping a small amount. As we move forward into the next version of, which we hope to start working on in the next few weeks, we’ll need to keep this in mind. We want to integrate more social media into the web site, but we can’t move totally in that direction because there’s still a large part of audience that hasn’t done so at all.

Please offer any feedback you’d like to in the comments section.

Why Do You Have to Type out ‘www’ to Get to our Website?

Itseems really simple – just three letters. But they seem to annoy some of ourusers, who have let us know: “Why do I have to type and not just Don’t you people even know the basics of running aweb site?”


Theanswer goes back to the early 1990s, when the Internet existed – but the WorldWide Web did not. NASA was on the Net very early in its history, and Domain Name Servers (DNS) – the Internet’s version of a phone book(OK, online directory) – handled bulletin board systems, Gopher and more. Whenthe World Wide Web came along, becamethe agency’s primary home online.


Todaythe World Wide Web is still one of the many, many networked services NASAprovides, all based on the domain. But along the way the web became thepublic’s most widely used aspect of the Internet, so much that the “www”became almost implicit. It started to disappear from the URLs of popularwebsites. NASA never made that switch, and our domain servers still do notforward users looking for to (Though many web browsers now do that automatically once you’ve visited asite.)


Settingup our infrastructure to do that is technically straightforward: we need to addmore servers to handle a lot of additional traffic on the front end, beforepeople get to content. There are both implementation and ongoing operationalcosts to doing so, and that’s where the decision point is. Is this the best useof NASA’s resources?


Weare in the age of zero-sum budgets: when we spend money in one area, we don’tspend it on another. In the last year we’ve been improving our on-demand video capability,optimizing our mobile site and expanding the reach of our live video viaUstream and smartphones. All of those things are increasing the reach of, probably more than the DNS fixwould.


Still,we’ve got the plans and are evaluating them and the opportunity costs ofimplementing. We’ll keep you apprised.

A Webby three-peat! Thank you!

The 2011 Webby Awards are out, and one more time you have named us your favorite government site. The whole web team says thank you. The editors, videographers, multimedia developers and infrastructure managers all do their best to provide you with compelling content that brings you back time and again. This makes three awards in a row for, and four overall. Again, thank you.

Our colleagues at JPL were honored by the Webby judges, who chose NASA’s Global Climate Change site as the best science site. Another JPL site, Solar System Exploration, was nominated in the government category.

Over the past year, we’ve been working on both infrastructure and content to try to keep our momentum going. We’ve got multimedia pieces on the 30th anniversary of the first space shuttle launch and the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. space flight. We’ve streamlined our video presentation into one player and created an optimized version of the site for mobile devices. Developers around NASA have been releasing apps for iPhones, iPads and Android devices. (We’re still working on our TV streaming for the latter. The different flavors of Android make it less straightforward than streaming to iOS devices. But we hope to have it running for the next launch.)

This summer we’ll be covering the end of the shuttle program, as well as transitioning to a new web-services contract and probably some new tools. But after that’s done, it will be time to start thinking about what the next version of looks like. As always, we appreciate your feedback. And thanks for your support over the years.

Android App — What Happened?

Mea culpa.

We were so eager to get our Android spinoffs app out that we — I — skipped a couple of steps, specifically ensuring Google’s Terms of Service agreement was something NASA could sign up to, and following our own software-release process. We’re working those and hope to have the app back out soon, along with an Android app for watching live NASA TV. Thanks for your patience, and apologies — to the public and to Todd Powell, the developer who spent so much time putting together a great app.

Brian Dunbar

Comparing the Interwebs to Social Media

Spent part of this week checking the spread of Monday’s Chandra story across the web, both from and social media. Though the social media channels are increasing in importance, especially in spreading the word on the first day, the web site still takes the preponderance of traffic, particularly the follow up in the days after the event.

Not surprisingly, attention generated by Facebook drops very quickly as the story moves down NASA’s Facebook page. Plays of the video fall off on both the site and our YouTube channel, but traffic remains higher on the site, paralleled by the drop we see on the site.

Notice that the reach of Twitter can increase as days go by, especially as people start retweeting others’ retweets.

The point of social media is not explicitly to generate traffic to the site, but it’s worth noting that a very small but growing fraction of people are coming to the site that way.
Trying to ascertain patterns and identify the strengths of each channel will be a key element as we start formulating ideas for the next version of in the weeks to come. As always, suggestions welcome.

(FB: Facebook; YT: YouTube. Like you didn’t know.)


Chandra FindsYoungest Nearby Black Hole (Nov. 15, 2010)







Chandra main page downloads





Feature story downloads





Shares via Add This





Video on





Video on NASA TV YT




12,286 (2)

Press release on


N / A

N / A

N / A

Press release via Gov Delivery


N / A

N / A

N / A

Press release via listserve


N / A

N / A

N / A

Impressions on FB page





Likes on FB page





Comments on FB





FB likes on




2,000 (4)

Reach of retweets (people)




42,213 (3)

Retweets from




210 (4)

Referrals to from FB





Referrals to from Twitter





Total visits to

1.85 million




Live press conference streams on


N / A

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Press conference replays on NTV YT




767 (4)


(1) Data not available until Saturday due to the size of logfiles to be processed

(2) Total for Wednesday and Thursday

(3) Includes retweets from other sites, e.g., NationalGeographic

(4) Cumulative for the week Video and More on Your Smartphones

If you’ve visited on an iPhone, Droid or other smartphone lately, you’ve probably noticed a big difference in the site. 

First off, you can now play our videos on your smartphone, iPad or similar device. We’ve put a “sniffer” in place that can sense if your browser or device doesn’t support Flash videos, and then direct you to a version of the page which delivers the videos using HTML 5 (image right).  Videos from the last month or so are already available in this format, and we’re working to convert the hundreds of older videos over the next few weeks. We figured you’d rather have the most recent videos available than wait for all 1000-plus to be converted.

Our next step in the video process is to design a version of the video page specifically formatted for mobile browsing. Even though the videos already play on smartphones, a mobile-formatted page will make it easier for users to find the videos they want. We’re also working on a process for playing videos embedded in feature stories on your smartphone.

The video upgrades build on the recent rollout of, a stripped-down design based on feedback from user testing.  The mobile site showcases the latest news and features, the image of the day, and the agency’s Twitter feed, as well as the ability to share content and search the site.  As with all of our projects, this is a first step — we’re never really “done.”  We’ll continue to listen to your feedback and make changes to the mobile site in the future. Working to Be the Best

Webby StatuetteEvery day, hundreds of thousands visit the NASA web site seeking information about the agency, our missions and programs, and we’ve been getting feedback that they’re liking what they’re seeing. Recently received the highest customer-satisfaction rating of any government web site. also was included in a map of the most far-reaching web sites. And just today we received the statuette representing our third Webby award.

That’s gratifying of course, but what does it mean besides a chance to blow our own horn? Mainly it’s validation that what we do here works for you, the Web public. We take your feedback seriously and rigorously incorporate it into our efforts to improve the site.

To find out what the site’s users think of it, and most importantly if they’re finding what they’re looking for, we get feedback through multiple sources: e-mail to the site, traffic statistics showing what content people are interested in, and a customer-satisfaction survey. We use this information to prototype new features, which we then test with representative users before releasing it. Our goal is to constantly improve our site and make it consistently one of the best on the Internet.

The latest customer-satisfaction data says we’re headed in the right direction. Starting in 2001, we had a rating of 73. More recently we have rated a 79 in 2007, 80 in 2008, and 82 in 2009 and most recently as high as 84. In plain English, NASA’s web site is closer to industry leading websites like (an 86 in 2009) or (also an 86) in customer satisfaction ratings than it is to other web sites both inside the federal government (74) and in the private sector (72).

Icons of the Web showing NASA.govWith continual growth in daily visitors to our site, increasingly high ratings of customer satisfaction, and additional recognition of our efforts to communicate effectively online, we are proud to be ranked among the best websites on the Internet. Earlier this year, Google released what it considers the top 1,000 web sites in the world by website traffic and NASA made the list. And, on Aug. 25, NMap released a poster of favicons, or small icons used by your web browser to represent a website, scaled to size based upon Alexa traffic rankings. NASA again made this ranking and was within the top-third of the rankings of the top 3,000 sites online.

This year’s People’s Choice Webby Award in the Government category was our second in a row and third overall. Earning recognition as a Webby winner is a tremendous accomplishment, one we humbly accept. With nearly 10,000 entries from all 50 states and 60 countries around the world, the 14th Annual Webby awards was the largest competition in the award’s history.

With all of these rankings, ratings and awards, we believe that the public is finding to be an authoritative source for the latest science, technology and mission-related news from the agency. We continually strive to improve and serve our site’s visitors in new and innovative ways. Our teams of web editors, multimedia producers and technical specialists meet at least weekly to discuss ways to enhance NASA’s online experience.

With more than 50 staff located across the country and internationally, we are always on call and always posting the latest news from NASA. We are always listening to feedback, planning for the long term, analyzing what it will take to get the word out and rolling out enhancements to the NASA site.

In the next few weeks, look for a new presentation of news stories on the home page, a revamped version of the mobile site and online streaming of NASA TV in HD. And remember your feedback is always welcome.