NASA’s Collaborative Information Portal: HCI Lessons Learned

Joan Walton, Leslie Keely, Ronald Mak,
NASA Ames Research Center

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University February 27, 2004

We developed the Collaborative Information Portal at the NASA Ames Research Center to support the current Mars Exploration Rovers mission. CIP enables mission managers and scientists and engineers worldwide to display and collaborate on data and images downloaded from Mars and to view mission schedules, reports, and clocks.

CIP was not a research or academic exercise. Instead, it is production–quality code we created under strict time constraints to meet ever–changing requirements. It became a successful and popular application and a critical resource that mission personnel use everywhere.

CIP is a three–tier enterprise application. Most of the human interaction occurs, as one would expect, with end users at the client tier. But developers and support engineers also interact with the application in the middleware and data tiers. Human interaction ranges from sophisticated graphical user interfaces to XML–based configuration files.

After brief overviews of the Mars mission and of the CIP architecture, we’ll examine some of the HCI design decisions that we made for CIP. Users often use the application differently than we had anticipated, or they make assumptions we did not expect. For example, the CIP middleware supplies Earth and Mars times with millisecond accuracy. But due to network latency, the times displayed by the clients may be several seconds off. Despite repeated admonitions, end users rely upon the displayed times and expect them to be correct.

We’ll discuss the lessons we’ve learned –– most things worked well but a few didn’t –– and which design decisions we would keep or change for future missions.

Joan Walton is a computer scientist and the deputy project manager for CIP. She led CIP's evolution from Perl and CGI to Java and web services, and she is currently integrating its technologies into other NASA projects. Joan has a M.S. in Medical Information Sciences with concentration in Computer Science from Stanford University and a B.A. in Physics from Swarthmore College.

Leslie Keely is a computer scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center. She designed and led the development of the CIP client applications, and she also does research in the area of data visualization. Leslie has a B.S. in Computer Science and a B.S. in Botany from the University of Oklahoma.

Ronald Mak is a senior scientist at the Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science, which is located at the NASA Ames Research Center. He designed and led the development of the CIP middleware, and he is also researching new applications of web services technologies. Ron has a M.S. in Computer Science and a B.S. in the Mathematical Sciences from Stanford University.


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