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| Natasha Bulashova | Greg Cole
| Tanya Stepanova | Evgeny Mitkovskiy | Tatiana Provorova | Ivan Revyakin | Zhenya Kozlova | Lera Gonchukova
Science and art have that in common that everyday things seem to them new and attractive. - Friedrich Nietzsche
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Our intention is to create a "model" service which can be replicated by others interested in working on similar cooperation/exchange services for other regions of the world. By creating a technically superior and information rich service for US-Russia, we hope to provide a good standard for similar efforts in other regions of the world. The authors have recently begun work on a similar project with US-China -- working with the individuals responsible for establishing the first Internet connection in China (URL: http://www.friends-partners.org/fpchina/). It is our hope that this will evolve into a China-US-Russia initiative.
Illustrating sharing of such useful information systems should provide a very concrete example of the usefulness of furthering telecommunications/information linkages between our countries.
It is our additional hope for funding which will enable us to complete the mirror sites of F&P in Tiblisi, Georgia; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Volgograd, Russia. Illustrating how a US-Russia cooperative initiative such as "Friends and Partners" - in partnership with many organizations - can further the development of telecommunications infrastructure throughout the NIS is an important goal.
We are very excited about the possibilities for this new service. We feel it will benefit both teachers and students.
Teachers will be able to exchange ideas and opinions with their counterparts in other countries; explore new teaching methodologies and broaden their knowledge and interests; prepare courses using network technologies - of benefit to teachers (who need to stay abreast of new technologies) but also to students (who are both eager to learn and who must learn computing and network technologies); and, through various tools and technologies -- WWW, email, IRC, etc. -- develop new domestic and international contacts.
Children will be able to learn from computer-based courseware; involve themselves in various network publishing initiatives - such as developing school newspapers and publishing with text, graphics and audio (providing both artistic and technical education); develop friendships with children in other countries and discover how similar their lives, hopes and problems are with children all over the world.
We propose to develop a history server - supplemented periodically (weekly or monthly) with on-line "lecture" contributions from teachers and historians. We would like to supplement the lecture series with periodic live "chat" sessions with the authors so that readers can ask questions about the material provided.
The history section should be supplemented with "museum servers" describing collections of both large and small museums in the NIS and in the US. This is of particular interest in the NIS where on-line access to some of the excellent collections there can help focus attention and perhaps lead to support.
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.
Enter:friends(in all lowercase letter and without the quotation marks) at the login prompt and then follow directions on your screen.
To join, send a one-line email message firstname.lastname@example.org of:subscribe friends firstname lastname
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).
Office of Grants and Research Development
Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms
Russian Academy of Sciences
Pushchino, Moscow Region
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.
The University of Tennessee
2000 Lake Avenue
Knoxville, Tennessee 37996
Phone: (423) 974-7277