Nov 11, 2013

Human infrastructure - build it bottom-up

An article by Procter et al "Fostering the human infrastructure of e-research" (2013, restricted access) discusses the challenges of embedding computing resources and systems into research. E-infrastructures (aka cyberinfrastructures in the US) are defined as digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) that can provide fast and scalable access to remote resources and increase discovery and innovation. Human infrastructure is arrangements of actors and organizations that make computer-research systems work. It is often acknowledged that human infrastructure is neglected compared to the investments in the technical infrastructure. And that's where the problem is. Cyberinfrastructures don't work without human adoption and use. As authors of the article state:

"So far, despite substantial investment, the desired transformative impact has yet to be achieved."

The article describes the Enabling Wider Uptake of e-Infrastructure Services project (ENGAGE/e-Uptake) that was designed to identify inhibitors and enablers of the adoption of e-Infrastructure services. The identification is based on interviews with ~50 researchers from higher education institutions and ~50 "intermediaries", or technical specialists who support researchers in their use of ICTs.

Findings

Obstacles in e-Infrastructure adoption and use:

  • Lack of training - many researchers hear about research computing services, but they often don't know about the nature of the services and the benefits of using them.
  • Lack of local research support - support is often basic, limited, fragmented and difficult to access.
  • Poor project management - projects that involve technical and research personnel have their own managing needs, i.e., the need to manage collaborations between people with their own research agendas and temporarily aligned interests. Managers who don't have such skills may make biased decisions and favor one type of team members over others.

Conclusions

  • There is complexity in divisions of labor and in organizational structures that may be historical. In cyberinfrastructure projects we may need more flexible and flatter approaches.
  • More teaching and training is needed - not only teaching of e-Research methods in classes, but also lifecycle outreach from the collaborative formation of projects through the acquisition of skills and the appropriation of technologies to the dissemination of experiences back into the community (see, for example, eIUS project for a collection of use cases and tools used in them).
  • User engagement can take a form of relying on "hybrids", i.e., people with both technical and domain expertise, or a form of co-locating technical experts and users throughout projects. More research is needed into how to do that plus how to leverage community engagement.
  • New practices must be embraced not only by researchers, but by the organizations within which researchers work.

The article reinforces the idea that by default software and computing tools are hard to learn and use. Why is that? A common argument is that complex problems require complex solutions. Doesn't a simple fix sometimes work better? Or, perhaps, it's ok to have complex solutions, but they arise from a number of simple solutions combined and overlapped. I wonder whether we should start with building simple local systems ("recognized routes" or local roads) rather than large and multi-purpose systems (interstate highways, to continue the infrastructure metaphor). Once local needs are met and served well, we can move into connecting local systems (i.e., building bridges, gateways, etc.). It circles back to the investment in human infrastructure and bottom-up rather than top-down approaches.