NASA turns to graph database to help researchers and prove its worth to the taxpayer

NASA turns to graph database technology to improve knowledge discovery throughout the agency and better show its value in terms of the economy, education and patent creation.

By Scott Carey
Jan. 20, 2017

NASA is increasingly turning towards graph databases to store and map its research documents, making it easier for agency employees to find mission critical information, and also to help the agency prove its worth to the general public.

David Meza, chief knowledge architect at NASA spoke to Computerworld UK from Houston, Texas last week to explain why the agency is increasingly turning to graph databases.

Instead of a traditional relational database, graph is a flavour of NoSQL database built upon graph theory, an academic computer science methodology which plots data points, known as objects or nodes, and the connections between them on a 'graph'.

Getting started with graph database

Meza's role, as he puts it, is "to develop and implement a tech roadmap to transfer data into knowledge." A few years ago graph databases started to pique his interest as a way of mapping the complex web of documents across NASA and make connections more easily discoverable for researchers and external stakeholders.

Back in 2015 the agency turned to Neo4J's commercial graph database to re-architect its vital 'lessons learned' database of documents relating to previous missions.

Meza wrote a technical breakdown of the initial project in 2015 for the Neo4J website, stating: "Recently I had a project engineer ask me if we could search our lessons learned using a list of 22 key terms the team was interested in. Our current keyword search engine would require him to enter each term individually, select the link and save the document for review [...] This would not do."

Now researchers within NASA are self-serving using the Neo4J database and a web-based visualisation front end from Linkurious - the same technology used to map the Panama Papers leaks for the International Investigative Journalist Consortium (ICIJ) last year - to search the lessons learned.

The best documented case of this new approach paying dividends was regarding an engineering issue on the uprighting mechanism for the Orion capsule. "They knew Apollo capsules had a similar uprighting system and trying to find information to repair and fix issues. With the current system they couldn't find the information. Using our system they were able to find what they wanted in hours instead of months," Meza explained.

Research data

Now Meza is looking to use the graph database technology to make all of NASA's research documents more easily searchable. NASA has 10 centres across the US, each with their own document stores.

A graph database maps these documents in a way that makes it simpler to search for what they contain beyond simple keywords, improving knowledge discovery, trending analysis, and risk-based decision making. It also helps the agency find documents that reference each other and keep citations up to date.

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