This year ASREN, GÉANT’s partner in the Arab region, hosted its flagship event – eAGE18 – at the beginning of December in Jordan’s capital Amman, attracting over 150 participants from 35 countries. I confess, I usually find it quite challenging to sit through all the sessions of a two-day event, I tend to ‘cherry pick’ and get roped into ad-hoc side meetings. e-AGE18 was different. The agenda was of the highest standard, with captivating speakers and ample opportunity for discussion with a very engaged audience. Opening speeches by dignitaries can at times be a rather dry affair, however, Andrea Fontana, EU Ambassador to Jordan, got my full attention – he clearly understands what research and education connectivity is about and how projects such as EUMEDCONNECT3 can catalyse it.
Adapting to the 4th industrial revolution
One of the recurring themes was the need to adapt to the 4th industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence. Automation. Ubiquitous supercomputing. Self-driving cars. Exciting opportunities, but at the same time also the potential for technological unemployment. NRENs have a role to play – that was one of the core messages in the keynote of GÉANT’s CEO Erik Huizer. NRENs can provide the tools and act as the enabler for governments, educators and students to tackle challenges to the educational systems and thus to cater for the individual rather than the mass brain.
Ensuring access to knowledge
NRENs were called upon also by representatives of library consortia in Africa and the Middle East to help ensure open access to knowledge. Diana Naser, Library Director at Birzeit University in Palestine spelled it out: “Libraries need good connectivity, and we need your help”. The AfricaConnect2-funded LIBSENSE project sets out to provide this very support: to improve the capabilities of the African HE libraries via workshops to leverage network services and to become effective curators of knowledge.
The voice of demanding users
One of the highlights was listening to scientists involved in SESAME – the synchrotron radiation facility officially opened in Allan, 50km north of Amman, in May last year. Based on the CERN model, it is the largest scientific project in the Middle East, bringing together physicists from several countries that rarely talk to one another – Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan and Palestine – but whose scientists are determined to collaborate. Their enthusiasm about the fact that 2 beamlines are now operational was catching and their endorsement for the need of international connectivity for such massive data generators (a single experiment generates 2–3 TB of raw data!) was music to my ears – we must be doing something right!
e-AGE18 offered the opportunity to catch up with friends – old and new – across the Arab region. There was a good vibe in the room during the combined AfricaConnect2-North African cluster/EUMEDCONNECT3/Internet2 Middle East SIG meeting with representatives from across the Maghreb, Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf States. We were also able to welcome colleagues from Syria and Iraq!
Yes, the picture that emerged was complex and uneven. Some partners plan multi-gigabit upgrades, whilst others are challenged by prohibitive tariffs in unfavourable market conditions (and spending 80% of their budget on telcos!). Yet, there were achievements to celebrate, such as the nascent Lebanese NREN TechCARE, the fact that all North African AfricaConnect2 partner countries now have access to international R&E connectivity, the explicit endorsement of the role of NRENs by the earth observation and high energy physics communities, and the willingness to share best practice and learn from each other, be it in human capacity building, roll-out of services such as eduroam and eduGAIN, promotion or user engagement strategies.
I left Amman inspired and with a feeling of optimism: there are challenges ahead in the Arab R&E networking world – but there is a willingness among the partners to tackle them together!