Building the Global Research and Education Network – A Volunteer Opportunity

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.”

CENIC connection

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.

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