Cyberinfrastructure is a crucial part of social change, Siegel tells webinar

UC Davis Chief Information Officer Pete Siegel, in a far-ranging talk about cyberinfrastructure Thursday, asked why anyone should care about the subject--then easily offered more than a dozen answers. Here's the key point: Cyberinfrastructure is part of a major social shift in how people learn and work, and higher education has a vital role in helping that shift succeed.

Siegel, also vice provost for Information and Educational Technology at UC Davis, discussed cyberinfrastructure during a one-hour online seminar presented by Educause, a nonprofit devoted to improving higher education through information technology. About 260 people from approximately 150 colleges and universities in seven countries signed up.

Cyberinfrastructure (CI) refers to the broad set of technologies and services that support the knowledge economy in the same way that roads and power lines sustain industry. And, like roads and power lines, it's usually part of the background until something goes wrong.

Specifically, cyberinfrastructure refers to computing power, data storage, network speeds, cooling capacity, and the people who do the work. At universities and colleges, it supports everything from high-end research to collaborative learning among students. Building it is expensive, complex, and involves the humanities and the performing arts as much as it does the sciences.

The job of campus technological leaders, he said, is not to tell faculty and campus administrators what to do, but to work with them, listen to their needs, and show them how the smart use of cyberinfrastructure can help them meet their strategic goals.

Siegel consistently champions that collaborative model at Davis. One result was a two-day campus conference on cyberinfrastructure in April.

"When you give the faculty a forum, where they are not just listening to experts from CI or campus IT, where they're speaking to you, you'll find they have a lot to say," Siegel said. "I think it surprised even them, how much they wanted to share."

He commended a report by the National Science Foundation, "Cyberinfrastructure Vision for 21st Century Discovery," to campus tech leaders looking for ways to connect the subject to their campuses, to inform administrators, and to engage faculty. He called it "an outstanding starting point."

Siegel also fielded questions throughout his talk.

One listener asked how universities can protect sensitive data, such as medical records.

That process is straightforward, Siegel said, if the goal is only to keep data locked down. But there's value in letting researchers have appropriate access to data so they can create better health programs. In that case, the challenge is keeping the data anonymous so that no one's privacy is compromised.

Another questioner asked Siegel if he had any indices that could measure the results obtained by good cyberinfrastructure. The answers include reliability, Siegel said, and the flow of research funding. Research increasingly relies on cyberinfrastructure, so grants are likely to increase at places that have access to effective CI.

"I'll bring it back to the campus strategic goals," he said toward the end of his presentation. "It isn't about IT, it's about CI as the enabler. So we create an informed community, and it will be others working with us. Our job is to inform them of the special role of CI."

Listen to Siegel's complete seminar, including his images and answers to more questions, in the Educause archives.