Case Study: Bringing Nuclear Science Into the Digital Age

Monday Aug 13th 2001 by Beth Cox

To retain its institutional memory Sandia National Labs, which makes all non-nuclear components for the nation's nuclear arsenal, began to videotape conversations with veteran scientists. But to digitize thousands of hours of tapes for easy searching, it had to search first for an effective software. Why did it settle on a package by Convera?

Passing on the knowledge of grizzled veterans to future employees has always been a knotty problem for large organizations -- an especially noteworthy consideration at a time when layoffs and early-retirement packages are scouring many workplaces of their histories. Developing technology to solve this "institutional memory" problem has become a significant part of a growing sector known as digital content management.

One entity eager to keep its employees' recall on call is Sandia National Labs, a national security laboratory operated in New Mexico for the U.S. Department of Energy by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary. Sandia designs all non-nuclear components for the nation's nuclear weapons, carries out a wide variety of energy research and development, and works on assignments that respond to national security threats, both military and economic.

Several years ago the lab began to videotape conversations with many of its retired and soon-to-be-retired nuclear weapons engineers. The idea was to let future engineers and scientists see and hear these veteran specialists describe, in their own words, the systems and technologies they'd developed.

"Many of the weapons and systems in use today will be around long after the original designers are gone," said John Tissler, leader of a unit Sandia calls its Knowledge Preservation Project. "We wanted the next generation of scientists and engineers, many of whom will be tasked with maintaining or disassembling these systems, to have information at their disposal that goes far beyond the basic manuals and diagrams."

But as the lab's stockpile of videos grew, so did the problem of how to make thousands of hours of tape readily searchable and usable. In addition to taping veteran engineers, Sandia also records exercises for a training program on the safe handling of nuclear weapons. It wanted make all the videos more accessible to personnel by digitizing them and making them available on classified internal networks and, for unclassified data, on its intranet.

Tissler said the lab initially spent a great deal of time and several hundred thousand dollars trying to build its own video content management system, "but the results had been disappointing."

Shopping for a Vendor
After deciding to shop for an outside vendor, Sandia settled on Screening Room, a product made by Convera Inc. of Vienna, Va. The lab is now using Screening Room to convert to digital format its libraries of training videos and the taped scientist interviews; to index and annotate key frames and clips; and to enable users to quickly search for and retrieve clips using a standard Web browser.

Convera was formed last December when Intel's Interactive Media Services division and Excalibur Technologies joined forces to create a new enterprise aiming to help businesses manage digital content.

"Knowledge preservation efforts are gaining considerable traction within both government and corporate entities," said Ben Plummer, Convera's senior vice president for marketing.

Among competing applications Sandia considered was Virage's video capture and management technology. Other players in the field are Eloquent, Loudeye, Verity, Liquid Audio, and Reciprocal.

With Screening Room, users can capture video; browse visual summaries (called storyboards); catalog content using metadata, annotations, closed caption text, and voice sound tracks; search for precise clips using text and image clues; and create rough cuts and edit decision lists for further production.

Easy User Interface
Screening Room is rich with help features and employs a user interface designed to be mastered in a matter of minutes. Sandia system administrators who digitized, indexed, and annotated the video clips were trained in a scant two days.

Sandia says that dozens of its employees are now using Screening Room, primarily nuclear weapons scientists within Sandia and the Department of Energy.

The solution has three basic modules: Video Capture Server, which performs "ingestion," or conversion for system use, of either analog or digital content; Video Asset Server, which allows the content to be organized, managed, enriched, and edited; and a User Interface Module, which provides search, retrieval, and preview capabilities through a Web browser.

Sandia said it spent approximately $125,000 for full implementation of Screening Room, including multiple licenses. Would the lab do it again?

"Definitely!" said Tissler in an e-mail exchange. "I have long been a proponent of government agencies using off-the-shelf products, as opposed to trying to develop something in-house. Only if there is absolutely no commercial solution available should a government agency attempt to develop something in-house. Even then they might be better off working with potential suppliers to develop solutions, instead of spending the taxpayers resources to develop something that the government will never be able to recoup its investment on.

"While Screening Room didn't do everything that we envisioned for our in-house development effort," Tissler continued, "it did about 90 percent. (And) as a customer, you couldn't ask for better service."

Beth Cox is a freelance writer.

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