The Semantics of NASA’s POPS Project

The W3C recently interviewed Jeanne Holm, Chief Knowledge Architect at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech. Holm also leads the Knowledge Management team at NASA. In the interview, Holm stated, “The goal of our project was to make it easy find expertise within an organization, or, as you'll see, across organizational boundaries. The project is called POPS for ‘People, Organizations, Projects, and Skills.’ The acronym does not include E for Expert for a good reason: we tried three times to create a system with data specifically about expertise, but failed each time for different social reasons. Each attempt relied on self-generated lists of expertise. In the first attempt, people over- or under-inflated their expertise, sometimes to bolster their resumes. The second attempt prompted labor unions to get overly involved because greater expertise could be tied to higher pay. The third approach involved profiles verified by management, and that led to a number of human resources grievances when there was a disagreement. In all cases, the data became suspect.”

Holm continued, “Kendall Clark at Clark and Parsia and Andy Schain at NASA HQ were the proponents for bringing in semantic technologies and they did the technical heavy lifting to make POPS happen (see the case study). We used RDF to aggregate the data and SPARQL for queries, constructed with a friendly user interface. Here's a sample query: ‘I am looking for someone at the Jet Propulsion Lab who has done thermal engineering who worked on the Galileo spacecraft’" In other words: I don't just need a thermal engineer, I need someone who knows an existing system that I've inherited in my current project. Knowing that someone worked on a particular project is extremely important.”

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Image: Courtesy NASA