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Stiff competition amongst universities, lack of defined metrics in measuring the impact of research and the absence of "known" end-user communities are some of the reasons that are limiting the potential impact NRENs can influence on Africa’s research.
These are some of the observations that were pointed out during an interactive panel discussion held on 4th November 2016 as part of UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, the 9th annual networking conference of UbuntuNet Alliance held in Entebbe, Uganda on 3-4 November 2016.
The panel discussion, held under the UbuntuNet-Connect 2016 theme “Optimising the Impact of NRENs on Africa’s Research,” was chaired by the Kenya Education Network (KENET) CEO, Professor Meoli Kashorda and featured Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) representative Ben Luhinda and African Academy of Sciences (AAS)’s Dr. Benjamin Gyampoh as panelists.
During the discussion, which was also opened to the 148 participants that attended the conference, Prof. Kashorda posed to the audience a number of issues related to the performance of NRENs in relation to research in Africa. From the discussion that ensued, it is apparent that African NRENs have to do more in order to add value to research that is going on around the continent.
In his introduction, before engaging the panelists and the audience, Prof. Kashorda admitted that while KENET has been providing connectivity as an enabling tool for researchers, the NREN is yet to measure the impact that of its connectivity service is having saying this has been hard mainly due to the absence of a "known community of researchers" the NREN is serving.
And weighing in on the discussion, Ben Luhinda of IUCEA acknowledged that NRENs are the channel and enablers of research and collaboration but was quick to point out that there is not much collaboration amongst universities on the continent due to what he described as stiff competition amongst universities themselves.
“African universities are very competitive. They are competing to be considered the best in their region or on the continent; as a result, our universities are reluctant to collaborate with each other. This results in universities in concentrating on individual research projects that are not noticeable enough by the NREN and the community. This makes it hard for the NREN to influence and play a major role in the continent’s research,” said Luhinda.
In his contribution, Dr Gyampoh of AAS questioned the lack of clear defined goals, needs and presence of NREN communities, elements he said are important in determining whether NRENs are having any impact on research that is being undertaken on the continent.
Commenting further, Dr Gyampoh, who leads the Climate Impact Research Capacity and Leadership Enhancement (CIRCLE) programme at AAS, said another challenge that exists within the African NREN set-up is the absence of defined research communities which NRENs are supposed to be serving.
“When we talk of the “NREN community,” what exactly is this community? is it a community of IT experts from universities operating the network, or groups of researchers or students from universities who are doing the actual research on the ground? If it is the technical experts we are targeting, then it is another thing but if our community is made up of known researchers then we need to define the needs of these researchers and make sure that the NREN is providing these needs because the needs of these research communities are beyond just connectivity,” noted Dr. Gyampoh.
Taking their turns, members of the audience gave varying contributions to the discussion.
Research and Education Network of Uganda CEO, Eng. Isaac Kasana said it is high time African universities started believing in themselves and their products by collaborating with each other in research fields that have a direct bearing on their communities. He said the NREN should be able to facilitate these collaborations.
The panel discussion was the sixth of the seven sessions of UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, which drew 148 participants from 33 countries from 5 continents. 33 research papers focusing on building and expanding the NREN, Network security, open access and global collaboration among other themes, were presented during the two day conference.
All presentations made at the conference are available online.
The month of November is a special one for UbuntuNet Alliance as this is the time the Regional Research and Education Network (RREN) for Southern and Eastern Africa holds its annual networking conference, the UbuntuNet-Connect. This year, ICT practitioners, researchers, representatives from ministries of higher education and members of the global NREN community converged in Entebbe, Uganda on 3-4 November 2016 where the Research and Education Network for Uganda (RENU) hosted UbuntuNet-Connect 2016, the 9th edition of the conference series that started in 2008. NUANCE caught up with Dr. Pascal Hoba, CEO of UbuntuNet Alliance who took stock of the conference as well provided insight on the current and projected status of research and education networking in the region. Excerpts:
NUANCE: UbuntuNet Alliance has been organising the UbuntuNet-Connect for 9 years now. What has been the importance of this gathering to the research and education networking community within the region and globally?
Dr. Hoba: The UbuntuNet-Connect has been a very important platform not only for the UbuntuNet Alliance but also for our NREN members and our partners. This has been a unique platform that shows that there is a need for all stakeholders to work together in reducing the cost of connectivity within the region but also to collaborate and network. Also, UbuntuNet-Connect has helped raise the awareness and profile of the Alliance and its NREN members, especially those that have been hosting this conference. The conference has also given ICT practitioners, policy makers, researchers and regulators a strong platform to showcase their work, share ideas and their expertise. I believe that UbuntuNet-Connect is a platform that needs to be nurtured because simply put, this is the voice of the Alliance to the global research and education community.
NUANCE: UbuntuNet-Connect 2016 was held under the theme, “Optimising the Impact of NRENs on Africa’s Research.” Why was this theme chosen for this year?
Dr. Hoba: The situation with our NREN members is polarised. While connectivity is still an issue with some of our Member NRENs, we have managed to achieve tremendous progress in terms of connectivity with some of our members. For members that are enjoying this robust connectivity, we would like them to open the door to those NRENs that are not connected by showing them what can be done with the connectivity they are using. They should demonstrate that the connectivity is for innovation. In other words, this theme calls on NRENs to aid on the research that is happening in their country using the connectivity the NRENs have. The NREN should bring on board all researchers to show that through connectivity they can share data, knowledge and induce innovation for their country.
NUANCE: You mentioned about NRENs that are yet to get connected to the UbuntuNet Network, most of these NRENs continue to pay high prices for connectivity from commercial providers. How is the Alliance ensuring that all NRENs are taken on borad and that NRENs are protected from high costs of connectivity being charged by ISPs?
Dr. Hoba: The Alliance has done a lot to reduce the cost of connectivity for NRENs. The reduction in the cost of connectivity for our NRENs is unbelievable. For some NRENs, we have managed to reduce the price they were paying to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) by more than 200 percent. Now, because of our mere presence in the region and on the market, some ISPs are also trying to reduce their prices because they are aware of the affordable prices that the Alliance is offering to its NRENs. But for the Alliance, the aim is to keep reducing the price while increasing the capacity for the NREN. In September this year, the Alliance further reduced its prices making us even more competitive. All this is to make sure that our NRENs are able to get high speed connectivity at an extremely affordable price. In countries where the costs are still too high, we are trying to come up with tailored packages for them to make sure that all our members benefit. Again with AfricaConnect2 the Alliance will connect more NRENs making it able to be financially stable thereby able to influence the market even further with our financial strength.
Dr. Hoba: UbuntuNet Alliance acknowledges that there are local providers who are trying to entice NRENs and universities to take services with them and not the Regional REN, but the Alliance would like to make NRENs realise that it is more beneficial to be on a regional research and education network. Apart from offering cheaper price for connectivity, which UbuntuNet Alliance is also providing, the local providers are not interested in enhancing collaboration and networking as well as building the capacity of the NREN, these are important objectives of the Alliance. We want our Member NRENs to be able to work with each other and for them to be able to collaborate with the research and education community from the rest of the world. The Alliance is involved in a number of projects such as the H2020 projects of MAGIC, Sci-GaIA and TANDEM that are offering plenty opportunities for interaction and collaboration for NRENs as well as aim to provide important services like eduroam and eduGAIN. These are services that an NREN cannot get when dealing with commercial internet providers. If an NREN becomes too interested in getting just cheaper bandwidth from a commercial provider and ignoring the importance of collaboration and networking as well as offering unique services that are exclusive to the NREN community, the NREN risks becoming irrelevant to its community because it turns into a mere ISP like the other commercial providers.
NUANCE: There are a number of countries with the UbuntuNet Alliance member region that are yet to have an NREN. What is the Alliance’s role in making sure that all countries within the membership region have operational NRENs?
Dr. Hoba: One of the central focuses of the Alliance now is to expand the membership base by getting more NRENs connected to our network and also to assist countries that have no NRENs or whose NRENS are just emerging to get to a level of full operational NREN. In terms of connectivity we are bringing on board SomaliREN, MAREN, and RwEdNet under the European Commission co-funded AfricaConnect2 project. Outside this project we also have emerging NRENs from Comoros Island, Mauritius, Eritrea, South Sudan and Lesotho which the Alliance is keen to assist for them to become fully operational NRENs.
In November 2015, UbuntuNet Alliance CEO, Dr. Pascal Hoba, signed the AfricaConnect2 project contract for Cluster 1 during the UbuntuNet-Connect 2015 conference in Maputo, Mozambique.
Shortly after, Steve Cotter, CEO of GEANT signed two contracts for Clusters 2 and 3 of the same project for West & Central Africa and North Africa respectively.
Since then, a lot has happened to engage with and connect African research and education communities further, creating new opportunities for the continent and for global science.
Below is a round-up of the major highlights of happenings in all the three clusters of the €26.6m European Union co-funded pan-African project:
Cluster 1 – Eastern and Southern Africa (Coordinator: UbuntuNet Alliance)
Cluster 2 – West and Central Africa (Coordinator: GEANT, supported by WACREN)
Cluster 3 – North Africa (Coordinator: GEANT, Supported by ASREN)
Pan-Africa and beyond:
AfricaConnect2 partners have been active in engaging with the African and global community at various levels through IST-Africa 2016, the AfriGEOSS symposium, ICRI2016 and various other events and workshops.
In addition, 6 African countries have deployed eduroam, several NRENs have now enrolled in pilot programmes to offer the best possible internet services to their national members and facilitate research and education (R&E) collaboration across the continent, thus re-enforcing the value of R&E networks.
After successfully holding its eleventh annual conference (IST-Africa 2016) in April this year in Durban, South Africa where UbuntuNet Alliance, GEANT, ASREN and WACREN held an AfricaConnect2 workshop, IST-Africa is set to be back with its twelfth edition of the conference, IST-Africa2017 in Windhoek, Namibia in May 2017.
Supported by the European Commission and African Union Commission, IST-Africa is a series of Ministerial level Technology Research Conferences that provide a platform in Africa to strengthen ICT-enabled Innovation, Science and Technology related policy dialogues within Africa and between Africa and Europe, Global Development, Research and Innovation Cooperation and Community.
In Durban this year, AfricaConnect2 organised a workshop titled Value Added Connectivity for Research and Education in Africa where UbuntuNet- Alliance, GEANT, ASREN and WACREN partnered to showcase the success stories and well as reveal expected outcomes of the AfricaConnect2 project.
From Durban, IST-Africa 2017 will now be hosted by the Government of Namibia through the National Commission on Research and Technology and the IST-Africa 2017 organising committee is currently receiving papers and workshop proposals for presentation at the conference.
Interested presenters are encouraged to prepare an 8-page paper (4,000 - 5,000 words) following the IST-Africa paper guidelines and paper template for submission online by the extended deadline of 23rd December 2016.
Further details regarding the conference are available on the IST-Africa 2017 portal.
In a bid to shed more light on opportunities that exist under the -39 Call, the MAGIC Project will on Wednesday, 14 December 2016 hold a virtual H2020 Infor Day on the ICT-39 Call, where officers from the European Commission (EC) and practitioners involved in similar projects will talk comprehensively about the Call.
The ICT-39-Call is a call for funding under the Horizon 2020 framework recently published by the European Commission. The Call gives an opportunity to researchers or those that have innovative ideas that can address specific requirements of end user requirements in developing countries to apply for funding.
Research grants of up to 2 million euro will be awarded to teams of organisations complementing each other with a particular focus on the participation of relevant developing country innovation stakeholders and end- user community representatives.
Those interested to submit proposals can do so when the submission of proposals opens on 8 December 2016. Submission of proposals ends in April 2017.
And in order to give researchers a chance to hear more on how to write the proposals for the call, who to partner with when submitting the proposal among other things, officials from the European Commission will from 13h00 to 15h00 GMT avail themselves to give more information during a virtual Infor Day on the Call which has been organised by the MAGIC Project.
The Infor Day will be held using VC Espresso, a service available on Colaboratorio, a virtual collaboration platform used by the MAGIC project and interested participants are encouraged to first register online in order to participate in this event.
Details regarding the event are available online.
The 6th workshop of the EU-funded Sci-GaIA project on “e-Infrastructures and Open Science in support of Public Health” will be held on the 8th of February 2017 at the Conference Centre of the Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya.
The workshop is hosted by the Department of Computer Science and Information Technology of the Kenyatta University, which is also one of the co-organisers. The other co-organisers of the workshop are the Sci-GaIA project, the Kenyatta University Teaching and Referral Hospital and the African Population and Health Research Centre. Other schools of the Kenyatta University are also involved in the workshop such as the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health.
The overarching theme of the Nairobi workshop is Science Gateways(1), with a special focus on public health. Participants will discuss, debate and view demonstrations on e-Infrastructures(2) for building Open Science(3) health portals that can help preventing accidents and diseases, prolonging life and promoting health through organized efforts and informed choices of society, public and private organizations, communities and single individuals.
The workshop will bring together stakeholders in/representatives of:
The workshop will build upon past work carried out during the e-Research Summer Hackfest and showcased at a recent Sci-GaIA event held in Dar es Salaam. The key aims are creating awareness of open science gateways and promoting the exploitation of e-infrastructures to build solutions and services that can tackle societal challenges through a multi-disciplinary approach. For this reason, the workshop will take both an applied research & technology angle and a software & service development angle.
Concrete examples will include publication, by physicians of useful knowledge that motorbike riders and passengers can consider to take greater caution in avoiding road accidents. Clinicians tend to have information that is not accessible to the public. With a public health gateway (PHG), we hope such information can be disseminated to various stakeholders, using different channels to inform decision making in road use. There are other applications of PHG, even in maternal child health, including immunisation of children, and we look forward to rigorous discussions of these issues.
Crucially, participating local universities can consider sharing the extent to which approaches for open science repositories, the use of cloud computing and e-infrastructures are reflected in their Computer Science and Software Engineering curricula.
The registration form is available on the event website and the agenda of the event will soon be published on the same page.
By Yvonne Tevis, Chief of Staff, Information Technology Services, UCOP
Network engineers travel to far-flung corners of the world to help build up research and education networks in places like Guam, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka, and Ghana, India, and Ecuador.
UC IT professionals have the chance to join them in the field by volunteering with the University of Oregon-based Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC), one of the world’s leading organizations responsible for helping develop and connect research and education networks around the world.
Growing international networks
The NSRC was founded in 1992 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to provide technical assistance to organizations setting up computer networks at universities and research institutes in developing areas. Its mission is to improve the network infrastructure and professional capacity in other countries and facilitate collaboration among educators and scientists all over the world.
In the early 1990s, the NSRC helped establish the first Internet connections to a number of countries, including Kenya, Peru, South Africa, and Egypt. Nearly twenty-five years later, NSRC staff and volunteers have worked in over 100 countries helping to grow the Internet, and have won major grants from the NSF, Google, and other sponsors.
The NSRC works with universities, governments, Internet Service Providers, and industry groups to help develop research/education networks and shared infrastructure in numerous countries. NSRC Director Steve Huter said, “All work is request driven. We make it a point to not engage until a group is clearly able to formulate a request and outline objectives.”
Volunteer field programs
With about 30 staff members, some University of Oregon students, and numerous volunteers around the world, the NSRC provides technical information, engineering assistance, and training, enhanced by donations of networking equipment, books, and other resources. Volunteers help build physical aspects of the networks via direct engineering assistance in the field, and also participate in tech training workshops that provide local professionals hands-on experience in building large networks.
The NSRC emphasizes “train the trainer” programs and sponsors opportunities for women in technology, as shown in this video about the African Network Operators Group for women, AfNOG Chix.
Of course, everyone benefits. Locals gain professional training and improved infrastructure. Volunteers develop skills as trainers and also learn how to deal creatively with challenges, such as power outages. Joe Abley, a long-time volunteer, wrote an article about his NSRC experiences in Africa. He said, “You make do with what you can find and you think on your feet; you don’t wait for anybody else if you can find a way to build it yourself.”
The NSRC recently began exploring opportunities to work with CENIC, the high-speed network provider for California educational institutions. CENIC CEO Louis Fox said, “Aside from the innumerable international research relationships that UC has around the world, through CENIC, UC also has an international infrastructure (such as the Pacific Wave) that provides a platform for international collaboration, data sharing, and access to global-scale scientific instruments. UC engineers that volunteer with NSRC not only would contribute to institutions around the globe, but also would come back with greater insights into how this global network fabric works – both the physical and the human networks – which would serve their home institutions and international research agendas.”
The CEO of the Kenya Education Network (KENET), Meoli Kashorda, recently visited the CENIC Network Operations Center (NOC) in California. He said, “African scientists and graduate students, particularly in the areas of public health, agriculture, and climate change, collaborate with U.S. researchers and benefit from high-speed national research and education networks. The NSRC helps to speed up the development of such research networks in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.”
How to volunteer
UC IT professionals, network engineers, and system administrators interested in volunteering as trainers in field programs or providing direct engineering assistance should contact the NSRC group. The NSRC field projects typically last one to two weeks and NSRC covers travel expenses.
Huter said, “Bringing technically skilled people to work together all over the world is how we create, build and maintain the infrastructure of the Internet. It’s important to invest as much in people as in infrastructure, so at NSRC we focus on building sustainable programs and a community of professionals to enable continuous progress.”
Photo credit: Hervey Allen. NSRC volunteer Andy Linton teaches a network class in Myanmar.
Call for Articles
|NUANCE is the monthly e-newsletter published by UbuntuNet Alliance. Key content is news from, about, or of interest to National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) in Africa. We request and invite you to submit an item before the 20th of each month capturing:
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