|Life is what happens to us while we're making other plans. - John Lennon|
Building Global Community on the Internet
Natasha Bulashova (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greg Cole (email@example.com)
AbstractThis paper discusses the motivation, history and proposed further development of the "Friends and Partners" Internet-based information system jointly developed by citizens of the US and Russia for the express purpose of fostering community and working partnership between individuals and organizations from the United States and countries of the Former Soviet Union.
The initiative demonstrates through a variety of globally distributed information and communications services how the rapidly evolving Global Information Infrastructure (GII) can be used by and between our countries to promote education, economic development, joint research initiatives, new exchange programs, and new partnerships. It is a good example of how the Internet, itself rooted in the Cold War separating our nations, can provide effective means of bringing our citizens together.
Success in the effort"s first year is evidenced by the growing community itself and growing use of the information services; by the participation of people and organizations throughout the world; and by the helpful sponsorship of NATO, Sun Microsystems, the International Science Foundation and the Russian RELARN organization.
The authors hope that 'telling the story' behind its development might be enlightening for others - both in terms of what we have learned about the capabilities and limitations of the Internet for supporting such international services, but also the challenges of working across traditionally difficult geographic, political and cultural boundaries.
1.0 OverviewOur motivation in beginning this service was to help build a community of individuals interested in furthering active partnership between people and organizations in our countries. From the beginning, we concentrated on two primary services: (1) an information base which would attract people from both regions of the world; and (2) a mechanism for encouraging and promoting active communications. While people have been using electronic-mail listservers for years to facilitate interaction among people with common interest, our efforts have focused on supplementing this with a large and quickly expanding information base.
For many reasons (including the existence of the Lynx character-based browser), we chose the World Wide Web as our information delivery vehicle. We discovered that the combination of the World Wide Web (with associated WAIS databases) with an e-mail listserver has provided a good foundation for information sharing and exchange. But, the development of a community which now often requires more immediate communications has led us to also experiment with such 'live' interaction tools as Internet Relay Chat, Collage and with videoconferencing tools such as CuSeeMe, mBONE, and Sun ShowMe.
"Friends and Partners" was designed to provide a framework of information and communications services. Therefore, the focus has been to help others develop and publish content material specific to their interests and areas of expertise. We enjoy active cooperation now with many organizations from the government sector, higher education, business and private industry, the 'third sector' and non-profit organizations, supra-governmental organizations (such as NATO) and private citizens. The challenge has been to help enable individuals from these groups become information providers and support them in their efforts - working across a wide variety of computer platforms, levels of network access, and computer/information literacy.
While rewarding beyond all our expectations, the effort has not been easy. By far, the most difficult part has been keeping up with email, phone calls, and other requirements involved in maintaining a service which operates almost entirely outside of the realm of our normal day-to-day work responsibilities. We have discovered the very real impact resulting from how the Internet both broadens and "flattens" our world - removing many barriers and enabling communications on a level and scale never possible before. Without doubt, our greatest challenge has been managing the increased communications while trying to advance new capabilities and services.
2.0 History and DescriptionAlmost two years ago, a chance meeting on an Internet news group began a friendship between two people on opposite sides of the globe. Natasha Bulashova of Pushchino Russia and Greg Cole of Knoxville, Tennessee shared little but a growing friendship and a common commitment to promoting better knowledge, understanding, and communications between people in their countries. Ironically, the Internet - itself a product of the Cold War separating their countries - enabled their friendship and gave birth to Friends and Partners. An interesting component of the development of Friends and Partners is that it was developed by two people who had never personally met one another.
Perhaps one of the first such Internet service designed expressly for the purpose of building community between these two regions of the world, it does so by providing an information base designed to attract people from both regions of the world and mechanisms for promoting communications.
When the authors made the announcement on the Internet, on January 19, 1994, they realistically expected perhaps 50-100 subscribers to the listserver and perhaps 500-1000 accesses to the World Wide Web server. At the end of the first two days, they had nearly 400 subscribers to the listserver and had received over 7,000 accesses of the World Wide Web and WAIS servers. Over the course of its 15 month history, F&P has grown to comprise a community of over 1,400 individuals from over 40 countries across the globe. Many thousands of email messages between these individuals have resulted from use of the service - as well as over 1,000,000 accesses of information from its World Wide Web and database servers.
Whether dealing with such weighty topics as discussion of health care, environmental clean-up, telecommunications policy, and economic theory; facilitating pen pal exchange between children; helping individuals find long lost friends and relatives; or simply better understanding how people in other cultures live, play and work, the project has demonstrated how the global information infrastructure (arising from the Internet) can foster new human relationships and partnerships. The ability to transcend geographical, cultural and political boundaries, as well as barriers of race, gender, age and handicap, unleashes a potential for understanding and cooperation that perhaps has never been possible on this scale before. Despite the current fashion of denigrating the potential for building community using the Internet, it has been our first hand experience to see the benefits which can result from just such a "virtual community" of people who share common interests, concerns, and who are willing to share information and communications. The ability to promote and nurture community and partnership which transcends all sorts of boundaries can yield enormous benefits.
During the project's one year history there have been many successes which have encouraged the authors in their continued efforts. These include:
Examples of these include the Center for Civil Society (a community of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)), Friends and Partners in Space (devoted to joint space activities), the FP Legal Server, the NIS Health Server, RASIN (building an economic model in Yoryevets, Russia), The Global University, Alliance of Universities for Democracy, and several others. It is precisely by distributing such responsibility to these "experts" that the effort can systematically meet the needs of the various constituencies comprising the overall Friends and Partners community.
The over 250 megabytes of information on F&P now includes such items as a four year full-text-searchable archive of Radio Free Europe postings; daily news updates from a variety of media resources on Russia/NIS activities; a large funding information base, information on art, music, history, telecommunications and many, many other information resources and searchable databases. The breadth of our intentions with Friends and Partners is perhaps best illustrated by the current "home page" graphic image which enables users to point and click on virtual "buttons" and visit different sections of the server. This image is reproduced in Figure 1 below.
Friends and PartnersFigure 1. Friends and Partners "Home Page" graphic map.
3.0 Technical IssuesWe have had an intense year of exploring hardware and software solutions to organizing and publishing information. This has included looking at different unix-based hardware platforms (and, more importantly, O/S considerations); exploring various HTTP and WAIS servers; creating our own specialized WAIS clients in the WWW environment; learning to use Perl as our primary text and data manipulation tool (as well as the tool-of-choice for CGI scripts); and our growing use of the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) as a solution for many of our information organization tasks. We have found that the integration of SGML databases with WAIS, Perl and the World Wide Web (using its forms capabilities) provides an incredibly powerful and flexible information environment.
3.1 Hardware Platforms/ConsiderationsFriends and Partners was primarily developed on two PC-class machines - in Knoxville, on a Macintosh 170 Powerbook using the MacHTTP software and, in Pushchino, on a 386 PC running bsdi unix. Before its announcement on January 19, 1994, the entire system was moved to a base-level Sun SPARCstation 10 located in Knoxville, connected to the UT Knoxville campus ethernet, and, from there, to the larger Internet via a T1 connection.
There was no difficulty in deciding upon its initial home of the SPARC 10. The machine was owned by the UTK Office of Research Services, was underutilized, had sufficient disk space and memory, and, with Sun O/S 4.1.3, was very stable. Most of the required server and accompanying software already existed for the SPARC machine (often with pre-compiled and ready-to-install executables).
Starting F&P on this platform was probably a key factor in its success. The authors have had to devote relatively little resources to software maintenance, system tuning and have had a very stable environment in which to work. Also, with only the addition of memory and disk space, the server has been able to steadily grow without decreasing performance of the host system - from its beginnings of roughly 500 - 1,000 information accesses a day in its infancy to between 5,000 and 8,000 per day currently.
A generous donation in March, 1994 by the International Science Foundation of a SPARC 1 server (also 4.1.3 based) enabled us to build a mirror of the server in Pushchino which was announced in April 1994. This has functioned both as a server for users in Russia but also as another development platform. Increased demands upon this server have led to another generous grant - this one from Sun Microsystems - of a SPARC 5 server. As this paper is being written, the authors are installing all necessary software on this Solaris 2.4 based machine (and enjoying the increased power and capabilities). We will soon be installing various pieces of Friends and Partners on these two machines in Pushchino - which, together, will function as a server for users in the NIS.
Many software packages (most available for free on the Internet) have been used in the creation of "Friends and Partners". The decisions made about various servers, authoring systems, etc. have often been difficult ones, but over the last two years, we have settled on several key packages which have proven important to us.
Friends and Partners has relied heavily on the following software packages:
4.0 Information Management IssuesFar more difficult than the technical issues we"ve faced are those that deal with information management. There are many critical issues which we face with such a distributed and "anarchic" information service. Reliability of information resources and proper attribution of intellectual credit are issues the entire Internet is beginning to grapple with. More mundane and perhaps more easily treatable are those issues we outline below.
4.1. Automation of World Wide Web maintenanceParticularly given the nature of our distributed World Wide Web server (in which people from all over the world are developing material and posting to our machines), we have found that the evolutionary nature of our information base requires an increasing amount of maintenance. This has led to our current efforts to create an automated system for WWW maintenance. We are working on the development of a facility which will use an SGML information base (describing all information files and resources) and a special language which will enable us to automate construction of the HTML pages. Such issues as file aging, link integrity, and page construction will be automated with this facility. We have much work to do on this and feel it is one of our most important priorities for our next year"s activities. The danger in developing a service such as F&P is that the authors can so easily become mired in maintenance that they cannot provide new and improved services.
A very important tool to our efforts is one developed by graduate student John Gerber in Knoxville -- a facility to enable automated posting of materials by email to certain sections of the WWW server.
4.2. Language / character set differences.We naturally have to deal with issues surrounding language and character set differences. While the Cyrillic fonts we use support both Cyrillic and Latin characters, we do not have many users who have successfully installed such fonts on their systems. This will become an increasing problem for us as we introduce an increasing amount of Russian material on the server.
We are excited by the HTML 3 extensions which will permit assignment of character sets to specific HTML non-empty tagged elements. We are hopeful that we will soon be able to provide side-by-side Russian and English material which does not require sole use of Cyrillic encodings - but rather permits the user to use their favorite Latin and Cyrillic fonts together.
4.3. Moderated/digested email listserverOne of the most difficult decisions we had to face in the early days of F&P was how to manage the email listserver. We made the painful choice of running a moderated and digested listserver - recognizing fully that this would lead to a less "interactive" list but hopeful that it would eliminate some of the "noise" and traffic which is increasingly a problem on Internet listservers. While more time consuming to manage, we feel that this decision was a correct one and has led to a less intrusive service for our subscribers. Of course, much of the good conversation occurs "off the list" but the subscribers often share with the entire list those items which are of general interest.
4.4. Access to the WWWWhen we began discussing the concept of Friends and Partners in November and December of 1993, use of the WWW on the Internet was still relatively small - dwarfed by the use of gopher and other protocols. There were several factors that influenced our decision to resist pressure to use gopher and ftp for our information service, including: (1) the desire to make this server technically innovative; (2) the emphasis of our server on such non-traditional information media as graphics and music; (3) the desire to integrate information resources from all Internet resources; and (4) the existence of the Lynx WWW browser.
We can not stress enough the importance of the Lynx in our decision. Without such, most people in the world would not have been able to access and participate in our service. The direct IP connections and class hardware required for using the relatively new graphic browsers dictated that we publish our information in such a way that everyone would be able to have access to it. At the same time, however, we felt strongly that the WWW would become the publishing tool of choice on the Internet and that we wanted to be able to work with all types of information - not just text.
In retrospect, we feel that the decision was a good one and has enabled people with all kinds of network connections and computer equipment to make use of the information resources on Friends and Partners. As important as the graphic browsers are to our initiative, Lynx remains a very important access method. We estimate that at least 40% of all access to our server is from Lynx or other character-based browsers.
Of course, many users from around the world do not have Lynx or other character-based browsers on their equipment. Thus, another decision we made was to provide a public telnet client. Anyone in the world can telnet to either of our machines and enter "friends" at the login prompt and they are taken immediately into the Friends and Partners server where they have full access to the material. We are currently receiving between 120-160 logins per day via the public telnet client - many of which are coming in from the Compuserve Information Service (which has placed a telnet pointer to our machine).
4.5. Email gateway to the WWW serverOne of our chief failures over the past year is not providing a good facility for browsing the F&P material for those with email-only access. Although we do have that capability in our listprocessor environment, it is difficult for subscribers, uses an arcane command syntax, and has been largely unutilized during the project"s history. Over the next few months, we hope to integrate the application used by the CERN site for enabling email-based "browsing" of our information. Many potential F&P users do not have any form of IP access to the Internet. Adding the email browsing capability for them will enable them to be full partners in the service.
4.6. Mirror ServersFor reasons which are primarily financially-based, we have attempted to provide a complete mirror of the F&P server in Knoxville and in Pushchino. Many Internet users in the NIS must pay on a metered basis for their access - and "foreign traffic" is charged at a substantially higher rate. Thus, many in the NIS cannot afford to access the F&P server in Knoxville. But, since information from within the NIS is generally free or very low cost, they can access the server in Pushchino. Of course, there is substantial cost for updating the mirror in Pushchino - but we have recently received NATO support which is enabling us to maintain this mirror location.
There are other good reasons for providing mirrored access. One is that it is simply technically easier to develop information on a local mirror site and then have it distributed automatically to other sites. Problems with network reliability, slow access speed, etc. favor local access.
And, for servers which receive a lot of access, duplicating the material and providing it on additional servers provides for faster access for end-users - particularly important on WWW servers which make heavy use of graphics, audio, and video.
5.0 Opportunities and new partnershipsOur work on Friends and Partners has led to a remarkable number of new friendships, active partnerships, and opportunities. A very rewarding and beneficial component of this has been the opportunity to be involved a series of conferences devoted to the development and use of the GII.
Beginning with our participation in the 1994 Global Lecture Hall (devoted to global distance education), we have been fortunate to sponsor (with the Alliance of Universities for Democracy) a special Internet conference in Prague for higher education officials from throughout Central and Eastern Europe, participate in the NATO Advanced Networking Workshop in Moscow, participate in two additional Internet conferences in Moscow - one for higher education officials, the other for business and government leaders; and sponsor an additional symposium on use of the Internet in supporting international linkage agreements.
One of the most important new partnerships has been the international linkage agreement signed between the University of Tennessee and Pushchino State University. Already resulting from this agreement has been the creation of a jointly developed information system describing thousands of funding opportunities for faculty and staff of our institutions.
Our most ambitious effort is the proposed establishment of an Information Innovation Center in Pushchino with which state-of-the-art networking and information technologies can be put to use in a demonstration and production environment to show other research and education institutions in Russia the potential for use of such technologies in higher education.
6.0 Principal ChallengesThe effort began entirely as a "hobby effort" - a goodwill gesture between two friends. It has been economically viable only because of its distributed nature, the dedication of many volunteers from across the globe, the generous support from the author's institutions, and equipment / telecommunications support received from various sponsors.
While the project has received support for equipment and telecommunications, there has been, to date, no support for personnel or operations. But, without question, the project has outgrown the authors" ability to maintain and further it without assistance. Believing the project to be well worth extending, we intend to seek funding for positions in Russia and in America (technical programmer, information science personnel, and support staff) and some support for operations. To be effective, the effort must continue to decentralize information management and communications - but with some small core of staff for central guidance, maintenance and technical innovation.
The issue of metered or "tariffed" Internet traffic in Russia has proven to be a very serious impediment to our work. We have learned first-hand the value of the flat-rate method of paying for Internet connections common in the United States. Obviously, the issues of ubiquitous access (or lack of) and network bandwidth are problems we deal with constantly. Getting people "connected" -- in the US and in the NIS - continues to be the most important issue we deal with. We have spent a fair amount of time over the past year exploring various alternative methods of access such as packet radio and satellite-based IP connections for areas where good terrestrial infrastructure for telecommunications is not available.
7.0 Future Plans
There is much work to do in the area of global networking - extending the benefits of the GII across traditionally difficult barriers as those which have existed between the US and the FSU. "Friends and Partners" may be the first system created by citizens of our countries for the express purpose of fostering such community. It represents a potentially powerful use of the Internet and, in its first year, has proven that geographical, cultural, political and language barriers are largely surmountable with the use of existing network and information technologies.
The authors have discovered -- as have many others on the Internet -- that there is so much potential for good resulting from the free flow of information across all sorts of geographic and political boundaries. We need to be careful as the Internet continues to evolve that we do not lose this fundamental benefit. There is potential for a tremendous "peace dividend" resulting from improved communications with and improved knowledge of other people, countries and cultures.
Even though the authors have had several years of experience with unix-based, client-server computing and with the Internet, using this infrastructure to develop globally accessible and relevant information services remains an interesting challenge and a tremendous learning experience. We continue to be amazed at what is possible. There is almost no end to what a little bit of technical knowledge, some imagination, a lot of heart and, mostly, a lot of hard work can achieve. The development of "Friends and Partners" has been an incredibly rewarding experience for the authors and one we are anxious to share with others.
Friends and Partners URL:
Friends and Partners Public Telnet Client:
To join, send a one-line email message firstname.lastname@example.org of:subscribe friends firstname lastname
Author InformationNatasha Bulashova
Natasha is the Director of the Office of Grants and Research Development in the Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms in the Russian Academy of Science in Pushchino, Moscow region. This office, established only recently (1994), provides Internet-based information delivery services to assist the Russian scientific community in obtaining needed information. The Office of Grants and Research Development, together with the Computing Center, makes use of Unix-based information systems (Gopher, WAIS, WWW). Natasha previously worked for 2 years in the Special Design Bureau for Biological Devices in Pushchino, where she designed programs for microbiological devices with microprocessor control. Natasha finished her University education in 1986 at the Electrotechnical Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).
Greg has been the Director of the Office of Research Services at The University of Tennessee since the office was created 6 years ago. This is the state-wide research administration unit of The University of Tennessee with the objective to support the University's research mission by designing, implementing, and supporting information systems recognize and promote the accomplishments of its researchers, encourage and support faculty and staff in their grant-seeking efforts, and encourage the use of innovative information technologies throughout higher education institutions within the State of Tennessee. With a background in computer science, Greg enjoys his office's relatively new role in providing unix-based networked information delivery services using the Internet. Greg completed his Master's degree in Computer Science in 1988 at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
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