Photo by Eva Cranford, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Photo by Eva Cranford, CC-BY-SA-3.0

James Montalvo, Daren Welsh, and Scott Wray are NASA engineers based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Their team works on spacewalks—also known as extravehicular activities (EVAs), or activities performed by astronauts or cosmonauts outside spacecraft.

The team’s work requires the collection and organisation of a plethora of information and details which can be stored in one of many locations on- or offline. These details are imperative to the EVA team’s missions, and having to trawl through several sources of information proved a sizable timesink.

“We had a major knowledge capture issue within our group,” James says. “We had stuff spread out between just file share [drives]… It was spread out all over the place. None of them really had version control, [so] we had this issue of ‘what’s the latest version’, or ‘are you working on that thing right now’, things getting accidentally deleted.”

Previous attempts to build wiki-like functionality into the teams’ workflows through other paid software and web resources proved “inflexible” and couldn’t provide them the functionality required for smooth running of operations. They came across MediaWiki, the open-source software that projects like Wikipedia are based on, out of this need to keep everything in one, extensible and adaptable, place—so the trio set to work developing a wiki for their team.

Daren has been a long-time advocate of MediaWiki as a platform. In late 2011, he persuaded James to “covertly” implement a wiki on a web server, and the team began quietly populating pages as something of a test case. They were wary of publicising the wiki throughout the organisation, fearful that it might be dismissed by a management skeptical of the wiki framework.

“It’s these strange stigmas,” James explains, “We actually … referred to our wiki as the ‘EVA Library’ instead of the EVA Wiki. There was such a stigma to the word ‘wiki’ in this environment that we didn’t want to call it a wiki. I don’t know what the stigma is but it’s definitely there.”

“Even today, we get people saying that we need to protect it just in case people vandalize it,” he adds, “and we’re like, seriously, who is going to vandalize it? It’s not open to the Internet. Everybody here is a paid employee, working at NASA, they’ve had some level of background check… They’re probably not a lunatic.”

Daren soon found that as more information was added and data became easier to quickly locate, this “underground guerilla project” caught on.

“There was this period of time at [the] end of 2012 where management got on board, and it kind of overnight changed from ‘we don’t know if we are going to do this thing’ to ‘we are going to go all out wiki’,” Daren says. “There was just this tipping point somewhere.”

James explains that there were two separate such “tipping points”. The first occurred when the team built a “critical mass of content” on the internal wiki, as colleagues realised it allowed for more efficient access to information.

“If the first tipping point was a transition from unofficial to accepted, then tipping point number two was the transition from accepted to being the primary knowledge capture resource for EVA,” he says. “The word ‘wiki’ started being [used] many times in every meeting. People were always talking about how this content was on the wiki, or that content should be added to the wiki.”

The wiki’s importance to the EVA team became clear on one day in particular as the unthinkable happened—the team’s server crashed. It was then, James says, that the group realised how fundamental this wiki project, launched by the three engineers and grown by countless others, had become in their daily routines.

Indeed, now as well as the EVA team, more than ten wikis exist for additional teams. James, Daren and Scott set many of these up. Generally, they found that providing a “critical mass” of starting material—derived from existing documents, or webpages containing large amounts of information—is needed to really get a team committed to a project. They also provide briefers on the more fiddly aspects of MediaWiki, such as ‘wikitext’ and template syntax. “It’s grown into people’s daily work methods,” Daren adds.

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Early in the development of the EVA team’s wiki, James and Daren created an extension allowing meeting minutes to be stored and linked automatically to relevant articles, making it easier for the team to locate background information on a current project. Another tool colours pages depending on how many colleagues are monitoring them—helping to quantify the accountability of the information covered on each page.

In 2014 and 2015, both James and Daren attended two small semantic MediaWiki conferences in St. Louis, Missouri, and Vienna, Austria, to help them understand how best to make use of the software they’d persuaded others to jump on. They were also at the 2015 MediaWiki Hackathon, held in Lyon, France, which for both was their first hackathon.

“I had expected to go to this having my nose in a computer the whole time, furiously working on software,” James says. “It ended up being a really good mixture of that and meeting people and kind of just learning more about what everybody is working on.”

While in Lyon, Daren and James spoke with developers about offline sync of the data contained by their wiki for potential use on the International Space Station. Right now, Daren explains that a connection to their wiki at JSC would be too slow and too patchy to be of much use.

“At the hackathon, one of the presentations was by Libraries Without Borders, talking about how they take a flight case with some computers and server equipment into a very disconnected community, and basically give them the ability to create videos and use Wikipedia,” Daren continues. “It kind of was nice to see that we’re not the only ones thinking about the offline sync thing.”

“It’s also kinda humbling to think, hey, we’re thinking about using it on the space station for astronauts,” he adds, “but really, there’s all these other people who really need it more than we do.”

* * *

The MediaWiki development used by the EVA team at NASA, James notes, resembles Wikipedia quite strongly. He says working with MediaWiki websites in enterprise situations can perhaps make people more aware of Wikipedia as a collaborative tool.

“I think that’s probably one of the biggest places where enterprise use can kind of give back,” he explains. “It’s just simply educating more people. Right now they’d think, ‘I’m not editing Wikipedia, I don’t have anything to say, I don’t know how to use it…’

“If they get in the habit of, ‘oh there’s a typo I want to fix that’, when they get onto Wikipedia and they see something that’s grammatically incorrect or whatever… They’re gonna go ahead and make those changes.”

Of course, there’s more to life on the EVA team at NASA than building wikis. To re-enact spacewalks, the engineers perform tests in the neutral buoyancy lab, which James calls “by far the best part of our job”. Getting prepared for these runs, however, can be strenuous. “The worst part of doing a run … is getting into the suit. Then the second worst part about the suit is getting out at the end of the day.”

“It’s kind of a weird thing,” adds Daren, “being in a position where you want to also work on implementing wikis. We find ourselves asking ourselves, well, we’re already doing a fun, rewarding, and cool job, and here we are trying to do something completely different, building a wiki.”

“It’s just that we’re trying to do our job better, and using a wiki … It pays itself back in dividends. It makes it easier for us to do our job, and makes us more efficient.”

Profile by Joe Sutherland, Communications Fellow
Interview by Victor Grigas, Storyteller and Video Producer
Wikimedia Foundation

The MediaWiki Stakeholders user group is interested in hearing about other big institutional MediaWiki users. If you know about one, please email Brion Vibber at bvibber[at]wikimedia[dot]org.