Academic researchers throughout Latin America and the Caribbean make important contributions to computer science, yet much of their work involves collaboration with project teams on other continents and does not address locally relevant challenges. Several universities have joined forces to enable greater collaboration within the region—and more technology breakthroughs in areas such as healthcare, education, the environment, energy and business development—by using ConferenceXP, a set of Web-based videoconferencing tools.
Focusing Research on Local Projects
For computer science researchers at Latin American and Caribbean universities, collaborating with peers halfway around the world can often be easier than trying to initiate a research project with someone in a neighboring country. Lack of regional funding, a smaller pool of colleagues with similar research interests and limited incentives to form locally-based research teams are among the hurdles that make Latin American researchers more likely to work on United States-based or European-based projects than projects that are based closer to home.
Researchers (from left) Ignacio Casas, Claudia Leiva, and Sergio Ochoa of the Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research Federation (LACCIR)“It is a problem of critical mass: Latin America has few researchers and we are very isolated,” says Ignacio Casas, an associate professor in the Computer Science Department at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (PUC-Chile) in Santiago. Over the past decade, he says, 90 percent of the computer science papers involving Latin American researchers that were published internationally were written with colleagues on another continent.
“Clearly, there is tremendous value in working with North American and European institutions,” says Casas, who serves as executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Collaborative ICT Research Federation (LACCIR). “However, such projects are not as likely to address the unique societal challenges and opportunities of Latin American communities.”
Improving Research Collaboration within Latin America
Through the LACCIR Virtual Institute, Casas and other academic researchers are working to expand and improve collaboration within the region by using ConferenceXP, an Internet-based conferencing system developed by Microsoft Research. The ConferenceXP technology is designed to allow researchers, teachers, and students to participate in real-time research collaboration, wireless-enabled classrooms, and highly interactive distance-learning environments. The Center for Collaborative Technologies at the University of Washington has enhanced the ConferenceXP platform with additional tools to support education and collaboration.
“If we can build a virtual collaboration environment with ConferenceXP that enables Latin American and Caribbean researchers to work together more easily, it will make a huge difference in the quality and impact of our research,” says Casas. “We believe that greater regional collaboration will lead to more technology breakthroughs that have the potential to improve healthcare, education, small-business development and other socioeconomic priorities in this region.” As a result, he adds, the work of Latin American researchers will gain more international attention and help attract additional research funding from corporations as well as government and nonprofit sources.
Facilitating Research Collaboration with ConferenceXP
Available as a free download for educational and other noncommercial uses, the ConferenceXP software provides interactive video, audio, and document-sharing tools along with the ability to connect hundreds of participants in the same Web conference. The LACCIR Virtual Institute is helping to install the ConferenceXP technology infrastructure at universities throughout the region. Microsoft External Research provided financial and software support to help form LACCIR and advance the federation’s goal of promoting academic research in technology fields.
LACCIR has established ConferenceXP hubs, which include a host server and related infrastructure to manage the service, at PUC-Chile and Universidad de Chile in Santiago. It has also created a user guide in Spanish and helped to equip videoconferencing rooms at nine other universities in Chile, Colombia, Uruguay, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica.
Initiating or participating in a ConferenceXP videoconference session requires only a webcam and a personal computer with high-speed Internet access. Participants can share Microsoft Office Word documents, Microsoft Office PowerPoint slides and other electronic files within a session. ConferenceXP also integrates with Classroom Presenter, a presentation software application developed by University of Washington computer science researchers and Microsoft External Research, which supports the sharing of digital ink content such as drawings and handwritten notes on a Tablet PC.
In addition to serving as a forum for live discussion and information sharing, Conference XP meetings can be recorded and archived for viewing by anyone to whom the session organizer has granted access. This makes the service an even more valuable resource for researchers, professors, and students who are interested in projects based in Latin America.
“We are able to share keynote presentations, classroom lectures, panel discussions, and many other resources broadly at almost no extra cost,” says Sergio Ochoa, a LACCIR board director and assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Universidad de Chile. “Students at a very small university or an individual researcher thousands of miles away can participate almost as richly as if they were sitting in the same room with the presenter.” When conducting a doctoral thesis defense, for example, a university can host a virtual committee of professors from several locations, with minimal time or expense involved. Rather than fly a keynote speaker from the United States or Europe to Chile, local event organizers can use ConferenceXP to stage a live presentation that can be viewed on the Web by a worldwide audience.
During the April 2009 Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work in Design, co-sponsored by LACCIR in Santiago, organizers used ConferenceXP to transmit each day’s keynote presentation and make the recordings available on the LACCIR Web site. Other ConferenceXP sessions presented by LACCIR members have included a seminar on software development cost estimations, in which university students in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia collaborated on an assignment using ConferenceXP.
LACCIR Grantees Collaborate via ConferenceXP
As part of its mission to promote greater research collaboration in the region, LACCIR annually awards five grants averaging US$50,000 each for computer science projects based in Latin America and the Caribbean. Requirements for funding include the involvement of researchers from at least two universities in different countries. At least three of the five teams that received LACCIR grants in 2008 are collaborating via ConferenceXP, says Ochoa.
LACCIR is also compiling an online library of videoconference presentations and educational materials for use by university faculty, researchers, and other interested parties.
“People have seen how easily they can use ConferenceXP to connect with other researchers who are investigating similar challenges,” he says. “As the number of users and the variety of projects involved continues to grow, we believe ConferenceXP will help draw even greater attention and financial support to the strong computer science research that’s taking place in Latin America.”
A Microsoft Research Connections-funded project supporting advanced technology research
- Sergio Ochoa, assistant professor, Computer Science Department, Unversidad de Chile
- Ignacio Casas, associate professor, Computer Science Department, PUC-Chile
- Claudia Leiva, project manager, Computer Science Department, PUC-Chile