Sound the trumpets !
Wow, we got another project funded ! Thanks mostly to the tireless effort and conviction of the coordinator and contributors (including yours truly) to the Sci-GaIA proposal in the INFRASUPP-2014-2 call, we now have a follow-up project to the ei4Africa project which finished last year. ei4Africa certainly had some success, but resting on laurels is not what we want to be known for. Things change fast in this game and before Sci-GaIA kicks off in May, I wanted to take a few moments to consider what success of ei4Africa means for Sci-GaIA’s success.
Sci-GaIA: it’s a big deal.
This project carries over a consortium almost unchanged from the ei4Africa partners, and includes
- Brunel University (coordinator)
- UbuntuNet Alliance
Sci-GaIA has set itself the following goals :
- At least 3 new Science Gateways in Africa;
- At least 2 new University courses on Science Gateways;
- At least 10 lectures delivered at Universities within CoPs on Science Gateways;
- At least 10 international student-led projects on Science Gateway development led by the TTA;
- 1 Policy Management Authority, the AfricaPMA, that will be a member of the IGTF 27 and will gather all Certificate Authorities already established (and to be established) in the continent;
- At least 3 official national Identity Federations with at least 3 Identity Providers and at least 3 Service Providers each; the Identity Federations will join the eduGAIN inter-federation;
- 1 Member of a Registration Agency for the issuance of permanent unique identifiers (either DOIs or PIDs) to research products (papers, data, software, etc.);
- At least 30 new Open Access Document/Data Repositories in Africa;
- At least 100 Open Access Document/Data Repositories compliant with the OpenAIRE Guidelines and include them in the OpenDOAR and OpenAIRE lists of official providers.
That’s a lot of work… More importantly, it’s not work that can be done directly by the members of the project.
Are we nuts ?
Are we crazy, saying that a small support action can reach such high numbers of new services in the reigon ? “Africa” is a tough place to get collaborations off the ground, and has a cronic shortage of technical communities. However, all throughout the experience of CHAIN-REDS, ei4Africa, and other projects, we’ve seen research just oozing from the region. It’s everywhere, and the strength of Sci-GaIA is in recognising that for African research to be conducted properly and flourish, infrastructure is missing.
What is this infrastructure you speak of ?
Good question - the answer depeneds on who you ask.
The infrastructure sweet spot
We always run the risk of acting in the interests of the too few, or the too many. In the former case, specalised services or applications are developed with the needs of a specific user community (or even particular individuals), while in the latter the services and tools are so generic that nobody can actually use them to get something worthwhile done. I think when the project is over, we will look back and know whether we’ve hit that sweet spot between being too specific or too generic.
Certainly performant NRENs are part of the infrastructure equation, and the most important - albeit the most invisible - part; without them, it’s safe to estimate the quantity and perhaps the quality of modern research output as “not much”. NRENS connect everything and this increases the complexity and capacity of the research communities.
However, the NRENs’ presence soon evaporates from the research community’s consicousness. When NRENs are present and do their job, they disappear. Then, we come face-to-face with all of the other needs of a researcher who needs to produce scientific output. We often talk about access to resources, such as computing and data facilities - but I’d like to focus on perhaps the most limited resource there is for mere mortals:
We to do more with the limited time we have available to us.
What to do ?
Developing for adoption
The only way the project is going to achieve these goals is by enabling the communities that it comes into contact. We’ve made a lot of progress towards rendering the deployment of services automated, and have to some extent managed to open up the development and testing of these too, creating more engagement amongst research communities. However, there is still not enough true collaboration for my liking. The model by which work is conducted is far too centralised and managed, instead of coordinated. There is not enough room for accommodating the initiative of groups and individuals which we may collaborate with. Certainly we claim that we want to develop an Open e-Science infrastructure, but how are we really doing ? Open means more than just the possibility of being able to use and re-use tools and components - it means developing relevant and inviting tools and components that are conducive to integration and remixing with others. That takes less of our time, and allows others to contribute.
It’s not about you
Another aspect which has perhaps not been appreciated is how much importance we put in specific people. Often, a really useful thing is developed - say a framework for developing science gateways, or framework for sharing data repositories - but to take advantage of it the interested party has to essentially spend the next few months exchanging emails with the expert or developer. Personally, my experience with the things I use and trust every day - github, slack, jenkins - have rarely involved sending an email to anyone. In fact, the only time I’ve exchanged mails with actual humans is when I’m so invested in a tool that I need to have a human discussion. The last one went something like this :
Us: “Hey github, we really like what you’re doing and can’t live without you - how about recognising our organisation with an educational grant”
Github: “That’s rad … ... here you go."
Sure, Slack and Github are successful startups and businesses, and perhaps their resources and operating models are a bit different from ours. However, they have got something that we need - automation in the right places. Automation is what allows scalability of operations, and I do believe that the “personal touch” is somewhat detrimental to the ability to scale. Automation is going to be a big part of whether Sci-GaIA succeeds or not. In order to reach goals in this project, action - rapid, agile action - is going to make a difference.
"A little less conversation, a little more action please" - hey, since you asked so nicely...
So - what is success now ?
The reviewers will consider our work and whether we have reached our stated goals, during and at the end of the project. They might ask for deliverables, metrics, and financial reports… Certainly these things are important, but hold pretty much zero weight with the real world out there. What will really matter is if we leave behind something that will stand on it’s own feet once the project ends; at the very least, it will leave a base on which to build, instead of a heap of slowly-decaying rubble.
That means, I think, two things: Developing services which
- resonate with communities
- resonate with technologies
I mean “resonate” in the purely physical sense here - that energy in one system can be transferred to others in a constructive way. This means listening actively to research communities and taking their cue on how they conduct their activities, while ensuring that they are aware of challenges and opportunities. It also means having a good peripheral technological vision to be able to adapt rapidly to changes in the playing field, as well as take advantage of new shiny which may fill in gaps. In both cases, an Open approach is going to be necessary.
Needs more web.
And so we come to the title of this post. We still have an open web, although monopolies and proprietary social networks threaten the commons. We need to recognise how powerful the open web is at enabling collaboration, including scientific collaboration. The web is like salt that can be added to recipes for success; you never never get a prescribed amount in a recipe, you always get told to use “to taste”. I personally think we stand to make much, much tastier science and the web is what is missing. Building and developing an Open Infrastructure for research and education is going to have to implicitly take this into account; the teaching, learning, publishing, discussion and development platforms included. Big ideals…
In the meantime, here’s to another 2 years of collaboration with a great team
The cover photo is used courtesy of gratisography.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://www.africa-grid.org//blog/2015/04/21/scigaia-what-is-success/