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07 Apr 2014

RDA Plenary 3: Cloud Computing and Developing World Research

The Cloud Computing and Developing World Research Interest Group postulates that providing the researchers of the developing world an infrastructure for cloud computing will allow for an even playing field with the rest of the world. Simply put, such an infrastructure is paramount in helping to provide solutions to the critical problems these researchers may encounter. After all, cloud computing offers a number of immediately obvious benefits, amongst which is the ability to gather data from geographically disparate locations and then performing computationally expensive analysis on remote machines. All while circumnavigating any infrastructural difficulties that might be encountered in any specific lab.
While the ultimate objective and benefits of the intrest group are clear, the path there is more opaque. As an example, consider the findings of European Commission funded ei4Africa project. After recently compiling an extensive survey of research labs in Africa, it was found that among the top most necessary resources for establishing e-Infrastructures in Africa are fast internet, computer hardware, and education. While all three are worthwhile problems to tackle, during the 3rd RDA plenary meeting Dr. Hugh Shanahan, co-chair of the interest group, advocated the need to focus on the education aspect.
To start the discussion, Dr. Hugh Shanahan emphasized the long term nature of the desired process, and citing that in the past there have been too many well-intentioned projects that dwindled away once either funding or interest dwindled. It was therefore the underlying current of all subsequent discussions that what was necessary was the establishment of a perpetually continuing solution. This thus led to the idea of setting up a summer school and some sort of accreditation for Data Analysts.
The ideas exchanged about the formation of a summer school revolved around the success of University of Michigan, which for the last 12 years has been running a Statistical Analysis workshop in Cape Town. It was brought up that the success of this program stemmed largely from the formation of partnerships with local communities. In this system, the volunteer instructors came to first teach the initial round of students, and in subsequent visits sought old participants to help and later guide the courses themselves. A teaching the teachers paradigm. Furthermore, while in the beginning the workshop was funded by a foundation, it was noted that it was not overly expensive, with most costs eventually covered by small grants. The proposed strategy was therefore to price the summer school to pay for itself and then to go find scholarships from places like Microsoft and Google.
Yet while setting up a summer school was most likely the best course to pursue, would such a curriculum be helpful to anyone? A person that finished the curriculum would likely need to later prove to future employers their knowledge of the subject. To help with this, the idea of an accreditation system, much like the standard exams used in actuarial science, was brought forth. The meeting, however, was split in the adoption of such a broad and lofty goal. Especially since the field of Data Analytics itself is still so nebulous. So the group proposed to spin the issue into an alternate and separate RDA interest group.
After a session packed with content and discussion, the group agreed that the next step forward would be to establish a more concrete proposal for a summer school prior to the 4th DRA plenary meeting in Amsterdam.

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