Webbys Director Talks Impact of NASA, Red Bull, Space on the Internet [INTERVIEW]

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Humans have been fascinated with outer space since the beginning of time, but with the internet making life easier, we can watch live satellite feeds from NASA or see daredevils jump thousands of feet in the air from the convenience of our own phones. In the past year, the Mars Curiosity Rover landing and Red Bull’s sponsorship of Felix Baumgartner’s record-breaking skydiving stunt has enthralled the social media world. The Webby Awards are celebrating their impact by nominating Red Bull Stratos, NASA’s Solar System Exploration and the Curiosity Rover for their annual event next month.

NMR caught up with Webby Awards Executive Director David-Michel Davies on his thoughts about how space organizations like NASA and stunts from Red Bull have made an impact on the web in the past year.

What has changed in the past decade when it comes to the internet’s connection to outer space?

I think there’s a certain inter-connectiveness between the internet and the web and science, specifically with discoveries in space from the very beginning. If you look back at the coolest, early crowdsourcing things online — one of them was SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Life. They essentially created this program that you could download to your computer, and the program would use the processing of your computer to help process signals that were coming back from outer space. SETI at the time was sending radio waves into outer space hoping that they would hit something. This program linked thousands, if not millions, of computers to help them process all the data they were getting all the time. It’s one of the first online communities and the first crowdsourcing initiatives.

In the early days of the web, it would take 20 minutes to download a 40k picture. What NASA, SETI and some of these other agencies and bodies involved in research reaching out to the public were very limited. Today, those challenges are overcome. We can get information from the Mars Curiosity Rover tweeted to us. NASA can have telescopes in outer space that transmit full HD pictures back so people can look at in real time and we can watch live events of somebody doing a jump from outer space. It’s a striking difference in technology from what we had 10 years ago and what the people involved in this work are trying to achieve is very similar.

How have organizations like NASA connected to the public?

If you look at the Mars Curiosity Rover, the ability to follow in real time what the robot is doing from a far, far away planet and to see images and 3D images and actually interact on Twitter with this thing is really much different because people from the confines of their phone or computer have a more emotional experience far away. I think it’s exciting when you bring images and video to people and they can start to picture what it looks like with their own eyes in real time. It really galvanizes interest. If you look at the Twitter following for the Rover, right away you start to understand how many people are actually interested in this.

How do they interact with their core audiences?

Many different parts of NASA have been very ahead of their time when it comes to connecting with their audiences on the internet. As far back as the late 1990s, NASA was winning Webby Awards. They have a global climate change site where they use satellites in outer space and take photographs of the Earth. You can see over time different changes in the Earth’s climate and people can connect and see how the Earth is changing using these satellites. NASA’s Earth Observatory has been sharing images for a very long time and now this generation has the Mars Curiosity Rover. There’s a belief that their work is exciting and people want to explore and learn and find out about it. The more that they can connect in some sort of emotional way with what they’re doing — whether it’s photos or via Twitter or videos or even research — that engages people more. That’s generally how they approach it is how they can use technology to see what it’s like in outer space.

Besides NASA, what other organizations had an impact on social media and space in the past year?

Red Bull for years has associated themselves with adventure, extreme sports. Last year they had Baumgartner do this stratus jump from outer space. The concept there was that he would break the sound barrier. If I have my science right, the way that works is when you get really, really high into outer space things become much colder, the speed of freefall is faster and it’s likely at a certain point it gets fast enough to where he’s freefalling at the speed of sound. They did that, and amazingly we were able to follow along and watch it actually happen live from outer space. I think for Red Bull, it was a very successful piece of branded content. Talk about tying themselves to extreme sports and adventure — it was one of the most watched things online for the entire year.

The other cool thing about it is all the information that we’re looking at from outer space and as it relates to people here is a lot of work was done — the actual ability to communicate that — with the help of Vint Cerf, and he’s been working with NASA on what they call the Interplanetary Internet for a decade already and a lot of that work is what enables us to communicate with the rover or spaceships or shuttles. It’s quite the technical part that’s been worked on by scientists for a very long time that has enabled a lot of exciting ways that consumers can sort of participate in things.

Do you think that the Webby Awards will have a specific category for space-related platforms in the future?

We’ll see; it’s interesting. What’s really neat is that we haven’t had to make a category for space for these things to be recognized. They’re broad and interesting enough to be recognized in categories like education. The Mars Curiosity Rover is being recognized in social media. Of course, we have a science category, but we think it’s really neat to see these stuff recognized in different categories as this just applies to the topics that people are interested in their daily lives. It’s not a bad idea for having a space category.

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