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Abstract -- Friends and Partners: Building Global Community on the Internet Regional Track
R3: Networks as Empowering Technology

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Friends and Partners: Building Global Community on the Internet

Cole, Greg ( gcole@solar.rtd.utk.edu)
Bulashova, Natasha ( natasha@ibpm.serpukhov.su)


"Friends and Partners" is an information system developed by citizens of the United States and Russia for the express purpose of building community between individuals and organizations from the United States and countries of the former Soviet Union. The support of the International Science Foundation, Sun Microsystems, RELARN and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have helped this year-old Internet service become one of the more active information and communications services on the Internet today -- with over 700,000 information accesses from its World Wide Web and WAIS servers and over 1,300 subscribers from 40 countries to its electronic mail listserver.

Developed by two people who had never met one another, the service has provided an intensely rewarding learning experience in which the authors have had to deal with an enormous variety of technical issues, information management problems, communications difficulties, and cultural differences. The authors hope that 'telling the story' behind its development might be enlightening for others - both in terms of what we have learned about the capabilities and limitations of the Internet for supporting such international services, but also the challenges of working across traditionally difficult geographic, political and cultural boundaries.

Our motivation in beginning this service was to help build a community of individuals interested in furthering active partnership between people and organizations in our countries. From the beginning, we concentrated on two primary services: (1) an information base which would attract people from both regions of the world; and (2) a mechanism for encouraging and promoting active communications. We have discovered that the combination of the World Wide Web (with associated WAIS databases) with an e-mail listserver has provided a good foundation which we have extended with the use of such 'live' interaction tools as Internet Relay Chat, CuSeeMe, mBONE, and Sun ShowMe.

"Friends and Partners" was designed to be a framework of information and communications services. Therefore, the focus has been to help others develop and publish content material specific to their interests and areas of expertise. We enjoy active cooperation now with many organizations from the government sector, higher education, business and private industry, the 'third sector' and non-profit organizations, supra-governmental organizations (such as NATO) and private citizens. The challenge has been to help enable individuals from these groups become information providers and support them in their efforts - working across a wide variety of computer platforms, levels of network access, and computer/information literacy. We propose to discuss our role as the creators and maintainers of the basic infrastructure which enables communication and information sharing among this growing community.

The proposed paper will be comprised of the following sections:

  1. A general history of how the service has developed and a description of the information services available.
  2. Technical issues.
  3. Information Management Issues.
  4. Opportunities and new partnerships.
  5. Principal problems. The issue of metered or "tariffed" Internet traffic in Russia has proven to be one of the most serious impediments to our work. We have learned first-hand the value of the flat-rate method of paying for Internet connections common in the United States. Obviously, the issues of ubiquitous access (or lack of) and network bandwidth are problems we deal with constantly. Getting people "connected" continues to be the most important issue we deal with.
  6. Cultural and Language Differences. Besides the obvious language barriers involved in any joint US-Russian endeavor, we have had to deal with two cultures whose fundamental differences have led to interesting opportunities.
Conclusion. Even though the authors have had several years of experience with unix-based, client-server computing and with the Internet, using this infrastructure to develop globally accessible and relevant information services remains an interesting challenge and a tremendous learning experience. We continue to be amazed at what is possible. There is almost no end to what a little bit of technical knowledge, some imagination, a lot of heart and, mostly, a lot of hard work can achieve. The development of "Friends and Partners" has been an incredibly rewarding experience for the authors and one we are anxious to share with others.