In 2022, with the pandemic subsiding, the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, once again served more than 1 million visitors. But thanks to an inventive digital offering, called Searchable Museum, the museum has been able to reach even more.

The searchable replica of the museum, which launched in November 2021, allows anyone around the globe to experience all elements of the museum, even with low-latency internet and inexpensive phones and tablets — a big benefit, especially for those without the means to visit the physical museum, which opened to much fanfare in 2016, including the attendance of then President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush.

“After we opened the museum, the director and curatorial staff were talking about how to how to reach even more people who wouldn’t be able to come to the museum and experience it,” says Jill Roberts, program manager of the Searchable Museum at the Office of Digital Strategy and Engagement (ODSE).  “We wanted a digital platform that would bring the museum to other people in the world.”

Curators and IT experts who designed the digital replica continue to enhance the platform with technologies that make it not only more widely accessible but also replete with fresh, robust content. The project was awarded a 2022 US CIO 100 Award for leadership and innovation.

And it’s working. To date, the Searchable Museum has served more than 1.6 million page views, with more than 65% of that traffic coming from mobile phones, Roberts says. A good deal of the traffic has been driven by a QR code deployed across social media channels and other communications outlets to promote awareness of the digital museum’s existence.

Digital storytelling

To entice a technical partner to build the digital site, the ODSE published an RFP and received 15 qualified IT specialists that wanted to take on the immense task of digitally recreating a multifloor museum.

Digital designer Fearless of Baltimore was awarded the contract to build and maintain the Smithsonian’s first and only digital museum. The startup focused on federal contracts and earned its first contract with the Secret Service in 2017. Today, it employs more than 200.

John Foster, COO of Fearless, says the project goes beyond the term ‘searchable’ to provide instead a digital storytelling of the African American experience as depicted in the physical National Museum of African American History and Culture.  

John Foster, COO, Fearless

Fearless

The digital version’s first exhibit on the site, “Slavery and Freedom,” is a foundational aspect of the physical museum followed by 10 additional exhibits found in the physical and digital museums.  

To develop the project, Fearless leveraged Smithsonian’s APIs to access a massive catalog of digital content, including 3D models, videos, podcasts, and imagery not available in the physical building in order to create an immersive, rich experience that rivals a walk-through.

“From the beginning, we challenged ourselves to follow a more audience-centered, data-informed approach to its design and development,” says Adam Martin, CDO of the museum. “Together with our partners, the museum engaged in an iterative process to reimagine and transform the in-person visitor experience for online audiences.”

Adam Martin, chief digital officer, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution

NMAAHC, Smithsonian Institution

For instance, the History Elevator transports visitors to the early 1400s using images from various centuries, narrated by Maya Angelou, as well as digital displays and statistics of the 40,000 slave ships of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as a feature on the domestic slave trade that displays authentic excerpts of bills of sale of human beings and slave auction lists of names. The “Paradox of Liberty” exhibit depicts Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of 609 slaves, as well as Sugar Pot and Tower of Cotton artifacts that depict the “juxtaposition of profit and power and the human cost” of slave production.

The Searchable Museum also features content not available in the physical museum. For instance, while the museum features a replica of the Point of Pines Slave Cabin, one of two highly protected slave cabins on Edistro Island, S.C., only the digital Searchable Museum offers a 360-degree look inside the cabin.

Fearless software engineer Avery Smith agreed that leading-edge technologies ushered in by the metaverse might one day be able to transport a museum visitor digitally using virtual reality and augmented reality technologies but he — and all those involved in Searchable Museum — insist they want to prevent making the digital museum inaccessible. A VR/AR experience requires the use of headsets that can often cost hundreds of dollars, he reminds.

The primary aim of the Searchable Museum, after all, is to lower the barrier to entry for all and make it widely accessible globally. To date, visitors from nearly 50 nations outside of the US have accessed the Searchable Museum. Foster is proud that his team accomplished its mission without shortchanging any of the experiences or content in the building.

“I can experience that story on my laptop as well as on my phone,” Foster says of the digital replica, which mimics the multifloor building, starting with a darker tone for the slavery exhibit on the bottom floor and progressing to brighter tones as the viewers ascends through the stairs of African American history.

 “As you go through the history, the higher you get, the feeling of lightness should come about because you see some of the progress being made in the African American story,” Foster says.

The technology behind the Searchable Museum

The Searchable Museum runs on Amazon Web Services and uses APIs created by the Smithsonian IT team to access all the metadata available in the massive catalog of artifacts, images, video clips, 3D objects, and other components that reside within the 11 inaugural exhibitions in the building.

Fearless designers also employed unique technologies to ensure viewers have a speedy, rich experience regardless of the device they use. Many of these technologies are time-tested frameworks and tools that don’t get a lot of publicity but are known platforms that have evolved and aged well. Fearless chose Gatsby, a JavaScript framework for fast web page creation, and Craft CMS, which provides a speedy yet robust reach into the museum’s sizable catalog of metadata stored in AWS S3.

The Gatsby static-site generator scaffolds the front end of the website, enabling developers to build ultrafast web page rendering, while the headless CMS fetches and renders the metadata stored in the back-end cloud systems at high speeds.

“Gatsby takes all that processing that used to happen in real-time and runs the processing before the website is deployed,” says Smith, of Fearless, about the pre-rendering framework. “I advocated for its use with React instead of JavaScript because of my experience working with the Small Business Administration. I learned with Gatsby how clever it is and how it allows for a very, very, very fast web experience … and those speed gains are important for an image-heavy website.”

Avery Smith, software engineer, Fearless 

Fearless

Smith also notes that the Smithsonian’s APIs provide access to 3D images in various resolutions that are immensely helpful for the curators designing the content and to the IT experts delivering on their vision. “Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

The Searchable Museum continues adding compelling content such as a special exhibit on Afrofuturism in March and its technology partners are exploring technologies such as geofencing, which will allow students to play games and learn along the way. But the most important aspect of the Searchable Museum, all say, is accessibility — and Fearless deployed unique, not bleeding-edge technologies to deliver on that dream.

“Technology doesn’t need to be super complex to get the job done,” Smith says.

CIO 100, Digital Transformation, Government IT

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have struggled with bad weather, fewer air traffic controllers, and a shortage of pilots, all leading to an unprecedented number of cancelations in 2022. According to Reuters, more than 100,000 flights in the US were canceled between January and July, up 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, is turning to data and analytics to minimize disruptions and streamline operations with the aim of giving travelers a smoother experience.

“Touchless, seamless, stressless. We’ve always had this vision, but it’s been hard to realize with the legacy systems and infrastructure we have,” says Maya Leibman, outgoing executive vice president and CIO of American Airlines. “As we modernize, we make more and more strides towards our vision. In the future, maybe airports will just be called Sky-Stops because, just like your average bus stop, they’ll require no more effort or stress than just simply showing up and getting on board.”

Leibman, who stepped down on Sept. 1 in favor of incoming Executive Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) Ganesh Jayaram, drove a major transformation of the 86-year-old airline to embrace data-driven decision-making.

“We have been on this transformation journey for a few years now, and prior to the pandemic we implemented a product mindset by restructuring our squads around our newly developed product taxonomy,” Leibman says. “This was a huge change for our teams. But because we had laid the foundation in 2019 for a product-oriented DevOps culture, we were able to pivot and reprioritize our work to quickly address pandemic-related customer issues, such as making it easier for customers to use travel credits from canceled flights.”

Leibman notes that American Airlines operates every hour of every day. It always has planes in the air around the world.

“We are an industry where our product is being consumed as it’s being produced,” she says. “The biggest challenge is turning that data into actionable insights that can be acted on easily and seamlessly in real-time in this 24-7-365 environment.”

Taking to the cloud

Luckily, Leibman has had an ace on her side. Poonam Mohan, vice president of corporate technology at American Airlines, oversees many of the airline’s AI and data analytics initiatives and has been fundamental to implementing Leibman’s vision.

Poonam Mohan, vice president of corporate technology, American Airlines

American Airlines

“We moved our major data platforms to the cloud and implemented data hubs for Customer and Operations,” Mohan says. “These systems allow real-time data from many of the massive moving parts of the world’s largest airline to be used not just for understanding how events affected us in the past, but rather allowing us to improve customer and operational outcomes as they happen.”

Mohan notes that her team simultaneously created DataOps frameworks that have improved the airline’s ability to ingest and consume new data sources in a matter of hours rather than weeks.

American Airlines has partnered with Microsoft to use Azure as its preferred cloud platform for its airline applications and key workloads. The partners are applying AI, machine learning, and data analytics to every aspect of the company’s operations, from reducing taxi time (thus saving thousands of gallons of jet fuel per year and giving connecting customers extra time to make their next flight) to putting real-time information at the fingertips of maintenance personnel, ground crews, pilots, flight attendants, and gate agents.

“When the pandemic started, all of a sudden we were canceling thousands of flights as travel bans were implemented. As a result, we were issuing a lot of refunds to customers who had their travel plans canceled because of the pandemic. To handle the incredible volume that our customer service agents were dealing with, we used machine learning and automated ingestion and processing to help with the volume and to get our customers their refunds processed faster,” Mohan explains by way of example.

When it comes to taxi times, an intelligent gating program deployed at the airline’s Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) hub, is providing real-time analysis of data points such as routing and runway information to automatically assign the nearest available gate to arriving aircraft, reducing the need for manual involvement from gate planners. The program is currently reducing taxi time by about 10 hours per day.

The airline is migrating and centralizing its strategic operational workloads — including its data warehouse and several legacy applications — into one Operations Hub on Azure, which it says will help it save costs, increase efficiency and scalability, and progress toward its sustainability goals.

“We are focused on automation in every function of the company,” Mohan says. “Robotic process automation has allowed us to automate a large number of repetitive manual processes in Finance, Loyalty, Revenue Management, Reservations, and HR, just to name a few. Combining automation with machine learning for natural language processing is very effective in helping solve many customer-facing issues.”

The importance of culture

Mohan also notes that the company has just scratched the surface of how digital twin and AI can help its operations and enhance the customer travel experience. Two of its more recent ML programs, started this spring, include HEAT (short for Hub Efficiency Analytics Tool) and the aforementioned intelligent gating program.

HEAT has already played a key role during severe thunderstorm events. It analyzes multiple data points, including weather conditions, load factors, customer connections, gate availability, and air traffic control to help American Airlines adjust departure and arrival times on hundreds of flights in a coordinated way.

“So far, we’ve been pleased with the results as it has reduced the number of cancelations during a weather event,” Mohan says. “While customers may be delayed, we are able to get them to their destinations as opposed to canceling their flights.”

As for the intelligent gating program at DFW, Mohan says that in March American Airlines was able to save nearly two minutes per flight in taxi time, which totals 10 hours per day.

“We have reduced the instances where gate separation is more than 25 minutes by 50%,” she says. “This is directly related to the scenario we all have to face: Our flight actually arrives early but then we sit on the tarmac waiting for our gate to be cleared. Spreading the time out between when the previous flight leaves and when the next one arrives reduces that frustrating scenario.”

Mohan says the program has also helped the airline reduce the number of “close in” gate changes by 50%. These events are particularly annoying to customers who then have to hustle to a new location in the airport.

To drive all these changes throughout IT and the wider company has required building and maintaining the right culture. Leibman notes that she has an entire team dedicated to delivery transformation within the company. That team’s primary focus is to build the company’s culture around continuous learning and to engage business partners to adopt DevOps and product-based practices. Internally, they’ve developed an immersive coaching environment called “the Hangar,” to create space for product teams to work closely with coaches.

“We’ve also been building a developer experience platform, called Developer Runway, to create a frictionless experience for our developers to build and deliver applications,” Leibman says.

The platform enables teams to build and expose their services. Teams across the technology organization work directly with the Runway platform and the developer community is then able to leverage what is exposed on the platform to simplify their delivery experience.

“What is hard with a big company is that people like consistency, standards, and predictability, so processes get built around those things and it’s like a fence that prevents innovation,” Leibman says. “We can’t hire people and put them in a tiny pen because they’ll never achieve what we hired them for. As leaders, we need to have the judgment to understand that while we need standards and consistency, we can’t have it at the expense of people thinking their best thoughts, spreading their wings, and producing new, innovative approaches — not just to what we are doing but how we are doing it.”

Analytics, Digital Transformation, Travel and Hospitality Industry