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UT Official and Overseas Colleague Launch New Computer Resource Linking U.S., Russian 'Friends'
By Jack Lail, The Knoxville News-Sentinel Assistant Managing Editor
When he was growing up, Greg Cole used to look up at airplanes and wonder if was a Soviet plane carrying "the bomb" that would destroy us.
Thousands of miles away, Natasha Bulashova had the similar thoughts about U.S. planes as a young girl in Russia.
Cole, director of the University of Tennessee's system-wide Office of Research Services, says they both had vivid imaginations growing up during the Cold War.
Growing up during that time of tension between the two countries, however, certainly influenced a project the two launched this year to foster understanding between the people of the two countries.
"We agreed early in our friendship that anything we could do as individuals to help ensure that no child had to grow up with that fear would be important and worth our determined effort," Cole said in an interview conducted via electronic mail.
Cole and Bulashova, a computer scientist, created "Friends and Partners," an ambitious computer resource on the Internet that is attracting thousands of users from around the globe. The Internet ties together millions of computer users.
The heart of the "Friends and Partners" service is hypertext "pages" of information on the histories of the two countries, the cultures, arts, music, science, education, research funding and educational exchange opportunities, literature, and other topics.
It also includes an electronic mailing list that is allowing people to share thoughts and information, creating a sort of virtual community of people who share a similar interest and want to work together. The list has almost 900 subscribers from more than 40 countries and has received and distributed more than 100,000 e-mail messages.
They also have created a way for computer users without direct access to the Internet to access the service and its extensive databases of information. Most of users of this public account are from Central and Eastern Europe and from countries that once comprised the Soviet Union.
The service is based both from a Sun SparcStation computer in Cole's office at UT and on a computer in Pushchino, Russia. The computers mirror the information of the other. The computer in Russia was recently obtained with the aid of an International Science Foundation Grant.
Two music groups have given recordings of traditional Slavic, folk, and choral music, which have been digitized and made available on the service.
They signed an agreement with Radio Free Europe in Munich, Germany, which allows Friends and Partners to archive all Radio Free Europe daily news reports from the last four years. The files can be browsed by year, month, and day or by keyword searches. The archive is updated by 8 a.m. each morning.
The Citizens Democracy Corps provided Friends and Partners with its database of almost 5,000 people with e-mail addresses in the former Soviet Union. "We have this database available on our server now for searching by anyone in the world. Interestingly, it has become one of the most popular services that we offer at UT," Cole said.
Others have contributed graphics and they have had an offer for some video that may be placed on the server.
"This was all started as a goodwill gesture between friends, a hobby, in fact. It had nothing to do with our jobs and was entirely an evening and weekend activity (albeit a pretty intense one!) for many weeks," said Cole, who has been fascinated with Russia since he was 8 or 10 years old.
The service, which was announced on the Internet on Jan. 19, has been so successful, they are now seeking grants to fund a small staff to keep it running.
"We were overwhelmed and a bit frightened the first day we announced the server by the fact we had almost 7,000 accesses of information from people around the world. At the end of the first week we had more than 300 people representing some 25 countries who had signed up for a daily news service in relation to this information server. We really had not counted on `success,"' he said.
Over its first seven months, it had an astonishing 200,000 accesses of information and distributed the equivalent of 2 billion characters of information.
"We were very determined from the beginning to make this information service available and of interest to anyone in the world -- and at no cost," he said.
"Our heaviest use is in the United States followed, interestingly, by Canada and Australia and then by Russia and other countries in the Former Soviet Union. But we have had accesses from every conceivable region of the world including Brazil, Chile, Western, Central and Eastern Europe, Japan, China, Singapore, and even a few accesses from Iceland. This is an amazing illustration to me of how far the world has progressed with this global information network. It is as easy for me to correspond with somebody in Russia or Iceland as it is with someone in my own office (as long as we have a common language -- fortunately, many on the Internet speak (read/write) English)," Cole said.
"It is, without any doubt, the most rewarding project I have ever been involved with. And while I'm not quite naive enough to believe that we're going to `change the world' with this concept, I do believe we can help in some ways that are significant.
"The most rewarding part of the project has been the `small stories' told by individuals," he said. "We have received many letters during the past four months thanking us for starting the service, indicating how useful the information is, or saying that they have a new friend in Russia, or they have an opportunity to work in a different area of the world -- but, always, some new relationship has been formed. That was our intent in initiating this service, and it is our hope we will continue to see such stories written. ...
During a day sight-seeing trip to Moscow, we spent time with one of our more active subscribers who lives in Moscow who informed us that he has re-established relationship with people he's had no contact with in years -- thanks to the service.
"It is a hope that I believe we all share that over the next few years Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union will successfully complete the many transitions that are so difficult and painful for them right now -- and that our countries will be drawn together so that we can truly say that we are friends and no longer enemies. This was the `big picture' in our minds as we started work several months ago.
"But, we know if our countries are ever to function as friends, the new relationships will be built one relationship friendship at a time. Natasha, myself, and others will continue doing everything we can to create a friendly information environment which effectively draws people together; that encourages friendship and working partnerships. If we can do this, the `big picture' will take care of itself."
Here's How to access `Friends and Partners'
If you are interested in checking out "Friends and Partners," here is how to access it.
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