The Digital Divide in the Scientific Community and Worldwide
The Digital Divide has been a constant concern since the dawn of the Internet, the great discovery of the last century. This concern has increased in the High Energy Physics community with the advent of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).1
The internet invaded all areas of human society and showed the possibilities of communication in a broad sense.
Computing for high energy physicists was always a concern and this community has experimented with different computer system architectures as technology developed. More recently, this community adopted and developed the GRID architecture as a solution for the treatment of the unprecedented number of events produced by LHC to be processed in order to obtain a new result in physics. LHC is a consequence of the evolution of new technologies during the last century in electronics, new materials, new particle accelerators, chips, and so on, and is opening up new possibilities in physics and other disciplines.
ICFA (The International Committee for Future Accelerators), understanding the Digital Divide problem, created a new group to study the situation internationally. This group is the Standing Committee on Inter-Regional Connectivity (SCIC) and is chaired by Professor Harvey Newman. A subgroup of this Committee was organized specifically to study the Divide Divide.2
One of the most important parameters defining the GRID is the connectivity among institutions and countries. GRID means shared power computing, shared storage and sufficient bandwidth (a minimum of 1 Gbps). We note that the GRID architecture for computing is not only a solution for processing high energy physics data. LHC will gather approximately 20 Petabytes per year of data (1 Petabyte = 103 Terabytes = 106 Gigabytes = …). This amount of data will be circulating in the internet. To have an idea of what these numbers mean, the same amount of data in cd's would be a 20 km high tower of cd's.
The reports of ICFA/SCIC3 produced since 2004 and the Workshops4 about Digital Divide clearly show the situation in all countries with respect to connectivity. The maps presented in these reports are very important to understand where we have to work to upgrade connectivity.
An interesting aspect of this reality was the "democratization" of the data analysis. The data now is distributed around the world to the central units of GRID (called Tier1) and the units of the system with less capacity to absorb data but very useful for other functions on the global system of GRID (called Tier 2). Before then, researchers had to analyze data at the physical site of the experiment because the data could not leave the site for security reasons.
Another interesting point is the evolution of the networks in each region of the earth. We have the impression that in regions such as Latin America the Digital Divide increases if we consider the rest of world, and the present situation of each country. Exceptions exist and Brazil is one of them5 where new projects to open access to the population have had good success.
The Digital Divide does not appear to be an isolated problem. It is a consequence too of the Economic and Social Divide6, or the distribution of wealth in each country. For example, it is not a big coincidence that the moment when the Brazilian economy did well, the Digital Divide in the country decreased.
The velocity of the development in each country is very different. Also for regions within one particular country it is different: notice, for example, differences between North and South Brazil. The announced and expected globalization characterizing a new era does not exist.
When a developing country joins an International Collaboration everybody agrees that it must have equal work conditions. But this is a dream and only a dream. A GRID unit costs 2 to 3 times more in a developing country. Then they need at least twice as much money to collaborate. And this "divide" is not taken into account by other members in the collaboration. The Economic and Social Divide does not stop with these examples. This fact permeates the entire society.
One good parameter for measuring the Digital Divide is the Internet Penetration rate. For example, let us consider the year 2009:9 for North America it was 74.2%, for South America, 34.7%, for the Caribbean 22.6% and 22 % for Central America.
Some countries started very early to take action against the Digital Divide. For example, France in the 70's introduced PCs in Primary School while Brazil did it only in the last 5 years. The figure (from http://www.cbpf.br/~eduhq) shows criticism by secondary school children. This was the situation on 2004. In the last 5 years the Brazilian Government distributed PCs to significant numbers of primary schools, thus opening new opportunities for the children.
The table shows what is the present situation in Latin America for the distribution of bandwidth per country. The reader will find much more information in the last report of ICFA/SCIC.3
There is no doubt that the Digital Divide is an important subject that warrants our attention. This is a subject that permeates all aspects of life in our society. The Digital Divide is an extension to the Economic and Social Divide and is just one of many problems we face. The development of technology as an added human element will bring us enormous individual and social benefits.
Connectivity in Participating Networks7
6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_divide The digital divide refers to the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. Like North x South Divide used in some countries we can generalize and say Economic and Social Divide.
Also see the summary by Harvey Newman in this newsletter of session J6 at the April 2011 meeting "The Digital Divide in 2011"
Professor Alberto F. S. Santoro is at the University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Instituto de Física, and is a member-at-large of the FIP Executive Committee.
Disclaimer—The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on International Physics Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.