Data, dialogue and development – why the last kilometre matters

This is co-written with Sara Gwynn, INASP Associate.

Picture this. A kilometre from your desk there is a warehouse where the world’s most relevant, timely and credible data and knowledge are instantly available… but you can only access or contribute to it one page at a time.

To add to your difficulties, each page has to be carried along a long, meandering path, and the path is poorly signposted, badly maintained and crowded with other people. There are no rules and, even if there were, there are not enough people to enforce them. When you do eventually transport a page, you have to do the whole journey again for the next one.

It is a tortuous process that wastes time, money and opportunities for you and for those who could benefit from your work. And for many people this is a frustrating daily reality.

The last kilometre – or even the last 100 metres

Years of effort and investment mean that the books, journals, databases, cables, servers, software, laptops and mobiles are largely in place, ready to go. Researchers, academics and students are ready too. But things grind to a halt in the kilometre between the backbone and the desktop if campus networks are not properly configured and managed.

This means students don’t get to develop their digital skills and academics can’t harness the power of online technologies to drive new research in new directions for development.

As we’ve written before, there’s a certain degree of hype about the potential of technology to transform African research and higher education. But there’s also huge potential, if the right foundations are laid – and, while the hardware matters, skilled people to manage it are vital.

In 2013, the UbuntuNet Alliance— including the Network Startup Resource Centre (NSRC) and AfricaConnect—and INASP identified a shared interest in the issue, and agreed to work with National Research and Education Networks (NRENs) to try and find a sustainable solution through a pilot project. We’ve just published a final learning report which highlights what we’ve achieved together, and what we’ve learnt.

Faster networks, more data

IT engineers developed their knowledge and skills, a core team in each country developed their skills to train others, and greater confidence and collaboration led to engineers across countries solving problems together. But perhaps most importantly there were tangible improvements to the speed of IT networks – enabling students and researchers to access journals and online books, to share data and to communicate with colleagues.

And as each NREN has improved internet connectivity for universities and research institutes, their memberships have grown, and they’ve been able to offer new services. The Research and Education Network of Uganda has now built a data storage facility, and developed secure data passport services which will enable Ugandan researchers to collaborate more effectively with their partners across the world.

To find out what we did, what we achieved and why, and what we learnt, you can read more here.

Jonathan Harle
Jonathan Harle is Director of Programmes at INASP.

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