The Scramble To Build is On!

The Scramble To Build is On!
image: thingiverse user approx
image: thingiverse user approx

In March, we wrote about a White House memo directing federal agencies to make 3D files more available to the public.At the time, the best example of this was the Smithsonian X 3D platform. Since then, the NIH has gotten into the action with its 3D Print Exchange, as has NASA with its 3D Resources page. Who will win the race for government 3D file dominance?

Of course, this isn’t really a race. Each of these represent early attempts by different institutions to start getting 3D files out to the public. Hopefully all of them will blaze a trail together and lead the way for other parts of the government looking to get 3D files into the wild.

What is the Goal?

The Smithsonian, the NIH, and NASA are all trying to make it easy to share object files with the public, but that’s a pretty abstract goal. What should they be focusing on?

Lots of Stuff

Pod 4 (Oversize Storage) at the Smithsonian's Museum Support Center (MSC)
One of many Smithsonian archives full of objects waiting to be scanned. Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

Obviously, the value of any 3D file repository is related – although not necessarily directly mapped – to the number of things available on it. These sites should offer many objects to make it easy for people to find things – even find things they didn’t realize they were looking for. This is especially true because the Smithsonian, the NIH, and NASA all have plenty of things they could be sharing as objects right now.

Minimal Restrictions

Works produced by the government are automatically in the public domain.
Works produced by the government are automatically in the public domain.

3D scans do not get an independent copyright, but plenty of things on a 3D file website could potentially be protected by copyright. For objects or files that are protected by copyright, those copyrights should be licensed permissively in order to maximize the ways that people can use them. For objects or files not protected by copyright (and that automatically includes anything created by the US Government), the site should make it clear that the files are actually in the public domain and encourage people to use them as they see fit.

Furthermore, the site should not use restrictive terms of service (TOS) to layer additional conditions upon access. TOS can be a sneaky way to limit access to otherwise open files, and any site trying to become a great public resource should strive to avoid doing so. The open government data best practices provide a helpful guild to making information as open as possible.

 Open and Scalable

This baby firefox loves open standards and so should you.  Image courtesy Mozilla.
This baby firefox loves open standards and so should you. Image courtesy Mozilla.

It may be hard to tell from the outside, but ideas can go viral within the US Government just like they do in the culture at large. A project or initiative gets some traction, and suddenly many different parts of the Government are scrambling to join the club. That’s why these sites should strive to be a model, and to be easily adopted by other agencies.

In part, that means modeling best practices (like the minimal restrictions). It also means striving towards open standards and implementations that minimize the barriers to adoption. Finally it means engineering the site itself to make it as easy as possible for others to access data in a way that works for them, and to contribute if appropriate.

Easy to Navigate and Use

flickr user Kevan
flickr user Kevan

Of course, none of these things matter very much if the site is hard for people to use. Simply “working” is never enough for a website designed to bring people in and encourage them to interact with the amazing content it holds inside. If we are listing goals, it is important to keep actual usability in mind.





What is Happening at the Smithsonian?

The Smithsonian has an interactive model viewer integrated into the site.
The Smithsonian has an interactive model viewer integrated into the site.

The Smithsonian site was first on the scene, and it offers the possibility of access to the Smithsonian’s massive collection of objects. Most of these objects are necessarily kept in storage and inaccessible to the public, which means scanning them and making them available online would be a huge public service.

The good news is that the current site has amazingly high quality scans of cool things like woolly mammoth skeletons, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, and Abraham Lincoln’s face. The bad news is that the site currently only has about 20 models. That’s obviously a good start, but hopefully it is a start that the Smithsonian is working hard to quickly build upon.

The site itself is also attractive and easy to use. However, it appears to be powered by a proprietary system. This isn’t inherently wrong, but it could create barriers for expansion and access in the future, as well as adoption by other parts of the Government.

Ultimately the Smithsonian’s site provides us with a tantalizing taste of the future of making 3D objects available online, and with the hope that it moves quickly towards fully realizing their vision.

What is Happening at the NIH?

This is a Aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator-like protein.  But you already knew that.
This is a Aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator-like protein. But you already knew that.

The NIH’s 3D Print Exchange is built on a more open framework than the Smithsonian’s, and includes objects from many different contributors. Since NIH stands for National Institutes of Health, it should not be surprising to find accurate models of tuberculosis proteins and dislocated shoulders, or that some of those models are even NIH verified as accurate. More surprising may be the user-submitted cartoon models of tuberculosis or collections of custom labware (NIH-verified 3D printable brain slicer? Check).

These models can be helpful in surgical planning, education, and research. The platform itself is designed to allow users to share, comment, remix, and upload their own models to the site. These features will hopefully help build a community around the site and help it grow. Some users are even using raw research data to create medical models, and then share those models with the larger community.

Since the 3D Print Exchange is built on an open framework, it would be easy for other parts of the government to adopt it as their own and build their own community of 3D objects. The openness should also make it easier to gradually improve the functionality of the site and add new features.   Today, the Print Exchange gives us a sense of what happens when the government tries to build a strong community around a specific set of 3D objects.

What is Happening at NASA?

NASA's 3D scan of the asteroid Eros is pre-split to make home 3D printing easier.
NASA’s 3D scan of the asteroid Eros is pre-split to make home 3D printing easier.

NASA’s 3D Resources site sits somewhere between the Smithsonian and the NIH. Its limited collection of (very cool) objects is somewhat larger than the Smithsonian’s. This may be because, while the Smithsonian needs to scan its physical objects, many of NASA’s objects already exist as either computer renderings or as collections of scan data.

In addition to spaceship parts and asteroids, it also has scans of craters on Mars. Unfortunately, while the site has a picture of an Apollo bootprint on the Moon, it is only a picture and is not 3D printable – at least not yet. Like the Smithsonian’s site, right now NASA’s site is mostly a one-way experience that is only open to a limited number of contributors.

If you are someone who cares about opening up government data, one of the most exciting things about the NASA site is the sentence that sits at the top:

“All of these resources are free to download and use.”

Government-created works are not eligible for copyright protection, but it is not unusual to see attempts to restrict usage on government websites anyway (that’s part of what the open government data principles are trying to address). NASA should be commended for making it clear from the outset, in easy to read language, that people are generally free to do whatever they want with the objects on the site. While there may be one or two things to quibble with in their more detailed photo guidelines, this easy to understand blanket statement should serve as a model for other agencies.

Plenty of Room to Grow

Each of these platforms represent great starts in the effort to make more of the government’s 3D objects available to the public. Hopefully all three of them continue to grow, improve, and add to their stock.

In addition to everything else mentioned so far, it would be great to see these platforms build APIs into their structure. As they flourish, they will collect more data that more people can use in more ways. Navigating the site is one way to see everything it has, but being able to access the data automatically could make the platform even more powerful.

The most important thing that everyone who cares about accessing 3D government data should do right now? Start using these services. They are built by small teams operating inside large government agencies. Public support for them will encourage greater funding, which in turn will give them the resource to make the sites better.

So go use them!

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