U.S./Iraqi research team relies on Internet to talk

Iraqi Virtual Science Library

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A public/private partnership with Iraq has been relying on Internet telephony and other Web-based communications to coordinate the development of an Iraqi-hosted digital science library for safety reasons.

Sun Microsystems, federal agencies, U.S. academic institutions and journal publishers are helping the Iraqi people build a locally operated open-source Web portal that will reconnect scientists with the worldwide research community. The project is anticipated to take two years.

James Simon, Sun’s chief technologist and principal engineer for the Global Education and Research Division, said the team faces logistical challenges on the ground that require interaction via the Internet. In public, the Iraqis cannot speak English loudly or for a long time over the phone for fear of being associated with a U.S. government operation.

Simon said he hears comments, such as “I really need to go now because we have a curfew.”

The first phase of the project is a U.S.-hosted virtual science library accessible to many of Iraq’s academic and research institutions. The portal, launched six months ago, has provided access to more than 17,000 science, engineering and computer science journals. Next, the U.S. team and Iraqi agencies will create an open-source portal that institutions across Iraq will own, operate and customize.

Simon said he is providing Iraqis with technical support through e-mail exchanges and chat sessions. Eventually, the virtual library portal will offer online information technology courses to aid developers. Because of multiple wars, Saddam Hussein’s militarization of the science community and looting, the Iraqis do not have the skills or infrastructure to build a virtual library. Hussein forced scientists to focus on weapons systems, preventing Iraq from advancing in IT research and development.

“These are scientists who have been isolated for almost 20, 30 years,” said University of Maryland scientist D.J. Patil, a participant in the partnership. "They ask questions, such as, 'How do you build concrete bridges?'”

A virtual library was the only option for Iraqi institutions. The latest information is not in textbooks. It’s online. More importantly, a physical library in Iraq would be hard to access safely, not to mention the cost of building and maintaining one.

Consequently, much of the interaction between project participants takes place on the Internet.

"The way we talk to them is not by phone lines, we use Skype," said Patil, referring to the popular Internet telephony service.

Anti-U.S. sentiments abroad have further complicated IT operations in Iraq, according to State Department officials aiding the initiative.

“We were all very concerned that we not put any Iraqi in jeopardy by being associated with a U.S. government project,” said Barrett Ripin, State’s senior science diplomacy officer. “We were very concerned and thought it very important that the people who were signed up in Iraq, not be concerned that they were being monitored.”

Ripin primarily communicated with university presidents via e-mail. “I didn’t personally use Skype,” but “this actually proved remarkably efficient” for the others, he said.

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