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Open Source, Open Science

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, workshop keeps up with the times

15/12/2011 - Trieste, Italy

An isolated village in South Africa is looking to the sun to help power its homes, and ICTP workshop participant Agboola Teru will help it make the solar connection, thanks to skills he has acquired through the Second Workshop on Open Source and the Internet for Building Global Scientific Communities, held 28 November to 16 December in Trieste.

Teru, an ICT administrator at the University of Fort Hare's Institute of Technology, is a returning customer, having attended the first workshop in 2009, and says that at the time he found the event "an eye opener." "I had been working with Linux for a long time and was attracted to the workshop's focus on open source," he said. Teru gained important knowledge from the workshop, and its broad array of topics left him wanting more. When the announcement for the 2011 workshop came out, he was determined to attend again, this time as a self-funded participant.

He explained that his institute's effort to assist in providing solar power to homes is the main driver behind his interest in the workshop. "We want to create our own control panels, rather than ordering them from Germany or China, which could take 6 months or longer to deliver to South Africa. With the knowledge I gain from this workshop about open source technologies, I can train my students to build their own panels, giving them valuable hands-on experience," he said.

Teru is one of thousands of scientists from the developing world who have benefited from ICTP's series of workshops devoted to no-cost or low-cost microprocessor applications in physics. Now in its 30th incarnation, the series' key focus on "open source" remains the one constant theme running throughout its history in a field that is rapidly changing, according to Abhaya Induruwa, a director of this year's workshop who has been involved in the series since 1985 and has directed many Trieste and regional workshops.

This year's workshop is organised and run by a group comprising academics, researchers and entrepreneurs from developed (Germany, Slovenia, Switzerland) as well as developing countries (Chile, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Ukraine).  

"Our goal has always been to create a community of experimental scientists in developing countries. By using open-source technologies, our training can be easily adaptable to a wide range of applications anywhere in the world," Induruwa explained.

From exposing physicists to the power of microprocessors in 1981--when personal computing was in its infancy--to offering instruction on mobile and wireless networks, the workshop's ability to evolve with the times makes it invaluable to scientists who are looking for affordable, easy-to adapt ways to harness technology for science. "Technology and the needs of physicists change. The technology lifecycle is shortening. In the past we would have devoted 3 or 4 workshops to a single topic; now it is hard to predict what the technology focus of our next workshop will be just a year from now," said Induruwa, adding, "But the one thing that has remained over these 30 years is that we always teach the state-of-the-art."

One possible future focus is the use of mobile technology in collecting and disseminating data, according to workshop co-director Carlos Kavka. "Mobile devices, tablets: these are technologies we need to consider for science. As their prices decrease, they will become more and more accessible to developing country users.  Right now we can buy open source devices made in China for under $30," he said. Kavka, head of research and development at technology company ESTECO (a co-sponsor of the workshop), also sees cloud computing and wireless technologies as areas to explore in future workshops.

As in the past, this year's workshop offers a wide array of topics for participants, with lectures on everything from open source operating systems and software to low-cost hardware configurations.  "The workshop's exercises are structured to expose participants to as much material as possible, using open source hardware and software," said Induruwa. He explained that the workshop covers all aspects of building a scientific community, starting with data acquisition using low-cost hardware; data storage in open-source databases; data analysis; and dissemination over the Internet using Web Services, a technology that allows computer-to-computer communication without any human intervention. He added that with present day, low-cost technology coupled with miniaturisation, scientists can build networks comprising thousands of sensors that could be deployed, for example, to study the exposure of children in a locality to harmful environmental elements.

The workshop sets aside time for attendees to present their past work relevant to the workshop to the other participants, providing an opportunity for them to see first hand some real-life applications. These presentations have ranged from "Data acquisition, Transfer and Processing in Seismic Network of Georgia" to "Development of a wireless sensor network to monitor debris flow".

"The workshop has provided me with a tremendous opportunity to learn about the latest developments in open source technology," said Kirankumar Trivedi, a participant from India who is an associate professor at Shantilal Shah Engineering College. "I have enjoyed the cooperative learning style encouraged by the workshop, as well as the active interaction with the faculty and the participants from around the world," he said.

Trivedi shared his work on "'Internet of Things' for Sensors Data Monitoring with Integration of Social Networks" during one of the participant sessions, suggesting what could perhaps be yet another topic for future workshops: the use of social media for science dissemination.

But for now, participants like Trivedi and Teru can return to their home institutes confident that the knowledge they have gained from their three weeks at ICTP will help them keep apace with today's rapidly changing technology.

For more details about the workshop, visit its website.