Pioneer Of Humanability: Ariel Waldman
In an interview with PSFK, working in collaboration with Verizon, Ariel Waldman discusses how she is using technology for good in her work with NASA as an advisor to the Innovative Advanced Concepts program, focusing on fostering interdisciplinary connections
In a special series brought to you with the help of our partner Verizon, The Pioneers of Humanability is directing the spotlight onto the people, organizations and companies who are using technology to do more new and do more good in the world.
Technology is at its best when put to creative and innovative use, which is optimally fostered by diverse input from a variety of backgrounds. However, not all people have equal access to or experience in the areas of science or technology, a factor that ultimately limits the potential for pioneering new capabilities that could improve human life. This is what Ariel Waldman, advisor to NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program and one of PSFK’s featured Pioneers of Humanability, hopes to change with her business, Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration. In this interview with PSFK, Ariel explains why science and its accompanying technology is a public good, and should comprise multidisciplinary communities that can convene to solve local and global challenges.
PSFK: In what ways do you think technology has the potential to impact humanity, making a positive social difference?
Ariel: Technology, like science, is a human endeavor. When we recognize it as such, it becomes self-evident that it requires diversity and inclusion of people from many backgrounds involved in the process of making technology to make it truly equitable for all. Technology by itself isn’t what brings people together anymore than food by itself brings people together—it is the humans and stories behind it that affect us and have the potential to make a positive impact.
How does the science and technology work that you do strengthen or positively impact communities?
Science is a public good. But there is a severe lack of opportunities for people from different backgrounds and careers to actively interact with science and collaborate with scientists. Equally, scientists lack fruitful opportunities to learn new techniques and technologies from people in different disciplines.
One of my main projects, Science Hack Day, is a highly collaborative, inclusive event that occurs globally–now in 29 countries–that welcomes scientists, designers, technologists, civic activists and people from all backgrounds to come together in the same physical space to see what they can collectively prototype in 24 consecutive hours. The event is organized by local volunteers in each community. Science Hack Day acts as a catalyst to the formation of long-term, multidisciplinary communities that solve local and global scientific challenges in new, clever ways. Multidisciplinary teams have created new ways to study radiation, developed earthquake early warning systems and built low-cost groundwater detection equipment, just to name a few.
The connections people make at Science Hack Day last beyond a weekend. For some people, the event has been obviously life-changing, inspiring career changes or sparking multi-year research endeavors. For many others, the impact is subtle yet powerful: the realization that they can actively contribute to science in meaningful ways.
What inspired you to do more new and do more good?
I had been watching a documentary about NASA and became so inspired by it that I decided to send NASA a fan-email offering myself as a volunteer. I have no formal background in science so I never expected to hear back, but I ended up getting a job at NASA from it! This changed my relationship to science from observation to participation and contribution. This set me on a mission to give other people the opportunity to actively contribute to science and space exploration. The very first thing I did as part of this mission was to create Spacehack.org, a directory of ways for anyone to participate in space exploration.
You describe your role as creating “massively multiplayer science.” Could you elaborate on this and its role in technological innovation to enhance the scientific community?
I believe in galvanizing the awesomeness within each individual—and building a world that harnesses their existing interests, skills and backgrounds to create serendipitous and unexpected scientific discoveries. I describe this as creating “massively multiplayer science,” which is a nod to massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). In an MMO, you often need to enlist a large team of players with different abilities to be able to accomplish large goals. If you have a large team of similar players, you are unlikely to accomplish as much.
What role does creativity play in science and technology, and how does it manifest in Science Hack Day?
Play is the most empowering form of science engagement and can be a catalyst for discovery in scientific research. Being able to walk away from a creative weekend and tell others that you experimented with biotech, explored neurological phenomena, sonified subatomic particles or designed a website about satellites creates a mental locket–a keepsake that affirms your ability and your right to talk about, play with and contribute to science. You may not still know about the inner workings of biology, neuroscience, particles or spacecrafts, but you’ve tinkered with it. You now know that if you’d ever like to tinker with science again, that there’s no barrier to entry.
The science industry suffers in immeasurable ways from not recognizing the potential of actively working with people outside of the science community. By having a fresh set of eyes from those who solve different types of problems across a variety of industries, new concepts often emerge and go on to influence scientific processes, communication and discoveries in unexpected ways.
How do you see Spacehack evolving to grow its audience and continue to support the scientific community?
Spacehack.org was my first project as part of my mission to make science and space exploration disruptively inclusive. It continues on but also now manifests itself in the physical world through Science Hack Day and has been foundational to my work in advising NASA. I care less about building frequent engagement models with my projects—my focus is just to instigate that one spark that gets people to go off exploring.
Making connections between varied disciplines and across industries today allows us to dream up a better tomorrow. For more about how innovators like Ariel are using technology to serve progressive goals and better the community for all, see The Pioneers of Humanability, brought to you by PSFK with Verizon.
Verizon’s Pioneers of Humanability list honors the people, organizations and companies that are using technological innovations to bring about good things for the world. These are the pioneers, keeping food safe and water clean, cutting pollution, saving energy and enabling doctors to treat patients a county or a country away. They’ve stopped asking “What if?” or “Why isn’t?” and started doing and leading. These are the people, organizations and companies you need to know about now—because they’re building the future.