g i r f t y

The Power of Human Networks to Fuel Global Research and Education

REGIONS: International

The pursuit of new knowledge is a global activity fueled by human curiosity and increasingly enabled by high-capacity broadband research and education networks that crisscross the globe, according to the International Research and Education Networking panel convened by CENIC at its 2017 conference, The Right Connection 2.0, held in La Jolla on March 19-22.

CENIC’s annual gathering highlighted international research and education networks and their leaders including Chief Collaboration Officer Cathrin Stöver of Europe’s GÉANT; Carlos Casasus, Director General of the University Corporation for Internet Development in Mexico; Meoli Kashorda, Executive Director of the Kenya Education Network (KENET); Steve Huter, Director of the Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) at the University of Oregon; and Jennifer Schopf, Director of Indiana University’s advanced high-performance worldwide networking efforts.

The panelists were universal in their focus on the humans behind the network being the key to successful networking. Beyond the technologically sophisticated array of fiber, satellites, and ocean-spanning cable, panelists noted that it was the human network that powered the pursuit of research.

“It all happens through the human network,” said GÉANT Chief Collaboration Officer Cathrin Stöver.  “We build networks of trust. We have a strong group of people who know how to work together.”

Stöver’s organization, GÉANT, is among the largest and most advanced R&E network in the world, with 50 million users at 10,000 institutions across Europe. The network connects 38 National Research and Education Network (NREN) partners which have a long history of collaboration. Her colleague Steve Huter, Director of the National Startup Resource Center (NSRC), agrees:  “If I didn’t know Cathrin, many of the projects I work on would be impossible,” said Huter, whose organization has worked with 103 nations to improve both human and network connections. “I first heard about Cathrin when I was doing work in Ecuador, trying to figure out how to overcome the difficulty of connecting that country based on its geography and lack of fiber. Her name kept coming up as someone who could make things happen, and finally, my colleague in Chile made the connection for me.”

As Stöver recalls, “We managed to negotiate Gigabit connections within Ecuador through a re-procurement process. And it worked.”

“Everything starts with the personal contact,” said Jennifer Schopf, who leads Indiana University’s two significant networking projects — TransPAC3, connecting US researchers to colleagues in Asia and America Connects to Europe, and ACE, which connects scientists and students to their counterparts in the EU. “We all bring our relationships to the table. Part of it is having the trust relationships and knowing that people are going to carry through.”

“From the NSRC perspective, there are a few things we need to know to make a decision about where we’re going next,” said Huter. “We need to know that the group making a request is able to clearly state objectives and desired outcomes. We need to know they are invested in those outcomes and in making them successful. We want to know what other group or groups are contributing in some way so we can see there’s some likelihood of success and sustainability.”

Stöver agrees. “We don’t choose who participates in the network, but you need to be able to clearly articulate your goals and be able to follow through. Like with KENET (Kenya’s Education Network); I know they can deliver and we know that if we send materials, the improvement to the KENET network will happen.”

Meoli Kashorda, who leads Kenya’s NREN — which connects 152 higher education institutions in Kenya noted that when he joined KENET, he inherited a relationship with NSRC’s Steve Huter. “One day, Steve appeared and I finally met him, but by the time I met him in Kenya, I knew everything about Steve,” said Kashorda. “He is a very friendly person and even knows Swahili.”  

His colleague Kennedy Aseda, KENET’s lead engineer, said he relies on the relationships with NSRC for assessments and training. “When I joined KENET, we were already doing a few projects with NSRC. They came in to assess the compatibility of various networks, and over time trained our engineers how to implement fiber networks, bandwidth optimizations, and things like that.”

Stöver, Huter, and others noted that training network engineers creates another type of problem — highly skilled engineering talent is great for the R&E networks and is highly sought after by other industries as well. “We used to have a lot of operation engineers working in West Africa, and now they want to continue working in that environment but they want to work for others,” noted GEANT’s Stover. “Of course, then you still have friends in all those countries — they’re just working outside of our networks.”

“I call that the “re-aspora” versus the diaspora,” said Huter. “Here’s an example — a friend of mine from Nigeria now works for Google, and now he can contribute back home because he has better access to financial resources and equipment. Yes, we might lose a talented network engineer, but they retain their ties to home countries and give back in meaningful ways.”

IU’s Jennifer Schopf agreed, “The managers and directors who are good at what they do know that well-trained team members could go off and be successful somewhere else. But if they go to another team somewhere else, they will be good collaborators. It only strengthens what we do.”

“That’s so true,” said Stover. “Even if you don’t have a lot of resources, if you have a lot of colleagues, you can get things done with those other people. If I didn’t have Steve available, then I wouldn’t be able to implement the work with our resources and Steve wouldn’t have the resources I can bring to the table.”

“The remaining digital divide is due in large part to the price of connectivity in the developing world,” continued Stover. “It’s nearly two thousand times cheaper to connect between London and New York than between Lagos and its peers in Africa based on the regulations that increase the cost.”

Mexico’s Carlos Casasus sees this as the challenge for networking in the future. “We have built a strong international community in research and education networking. What can we do to further strengthen our community and build our networks?” he said. “Governments have to be convinced that networking is necessary for economic development. They must believe that a better-educated population leads to a better world.”