Pending approval by the conference committee and funding

DIGI-FI@PEARC is an application development workshop that will be co-located with the Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-U.S., July 22-25, 2018. The program will be led by Elizabeth Leake (STEM-Trek) and Alana Romanella (Virginia Tech), with help from representatives of public and private organizations who work with blockchain. One objective of DIGI-FI is to inspire the development of socially-responsible digital products that will foster economic empowerment for those who live in under-served regions.

Workshop participants will be acquainted with blockchain’s strengths and weaknesses (as discovered through first and second-generation cryptocurrency experience) and encouraged to think of ways to use it for non-financial applications that are more secure, efficient and accessible to those who live in resource-constrained regions. Examples will be presented where blockchain is used to underpin irrefutable data provenance, transparency and efficiency to: improve value chains for smallholder farms; protect the safety of the food supply; prevent counterfeiting and other fraud; assure the origin, quality and safety of medical supplies; and curtail human trafficking (among other applications).

Why Blockchain?

According to International Business Machines (IBM), blockchain—or distributed ledger technology—is “a shared, unalterable ledger for recording the history of transactions. It increases trust, accountability and transparency across business networks.” By enabling smart contracts between individuals anywhere around the world, there is no need for centralized support or oversight (legal, banking, title companies, broker, or other steps that add cost and opportunities for fraud). A decentralized ledger can still be tampered with, but with blockchain’s transparency, it’s easier to detect if something has been altered. As for efficiency, IBM Global Financing reported saving as much as 75 percent of the time required to mediate transaction disputes among 4,000 partners and suppliers using a blockchain distribution management solution.1

How to apply for travel support

This workshop will be open to all PEARC conference attendees (you may need to register for this workshop, specifically–check the PEARC guidelines when you register).

STEM-Trek will support travel via separate process, for a limited number (funds pending). Those who receive travel support are required to attend the DIGI-FI workshop.

A call for participation will be launched in early April via STEM-Trek; its communication channels reach more than 15,000 global STEM prospects who will be encouraged to share the announcement with their networks. Application developers and early-career cyberinfrastructure (CI) leaders from demographics that have traditionally been underrepresented in CI leadership are encouraged to apply. Applicants must be 21 years old, or older.

U.S. applicants

  1. Veterans, women and ethnic minorities (in STEM) are encouraged to apply.
  2. Candidates who can pay-it-forward in EPSCoR territories or at land grant universities will be favored.

International Applicants

  1. Prospects from countries whose gross national income per-capita ranks 45 or higher on the World Bank GNIPC list are encouraged to apply.
  2. In sub-Saharan Africa, applications from Southern African Development Community/Square Kilometer Array “Readiness” states will be favored (SADC/SKA; see HPC Ecosystems map).

All applicants must submit

  1. Resume or curriculum vitae
  2. Recommendation letter from a current or former supervisor or faculty member
  3. Two 250-300-word essays titled, “How will this experience benefit me?” and “How I intend to pay-it-forward.”
  4. A photograph/head shot (used to identify the candidate, and for publicity purposes with the applicant’s permission).
  5. Passport photo page image file.

Reviewers will not discriminate against otherwise qualified applicants who are under-employed or entrepreneurial; PEARC offers networking opportunities that could lead to professional growth.

A call for participation will be released in early April, and applications will be due later that month. All will be reviewed by a multinational panel, and notifications will be sent in May. Those who are selected–as many as funds allow–will be awarded full or partial support for: airfare, conference registration, ground transit, parking, lodging (shared accommodation) and some meals. Roommates will be assigned by the facilitators.


In addition to hands-on training in the use of open-source tools, delegates will benefit from presentations led by blockchain gurus from academia, government, nonprofits and industry. They will enjoy after-hours socialization and the opportunity to engage with STEM-Trek’s virtual community of practice before, during and after the event. They will also have the opportunity to attend PEARC activities that don’t conflict with the DIGI-FI agenda (full DIGI-FI workshop participation is required if travel awards are accepted).  While student DIGI-FI delegates are encouraged to participate in PEARC student program activities, that program has a separate application and approval process.


Intellectual Merit: Beyond Bitcoin

Technology that supports first and second-generation cryptocurrencies is expensive to operate. Third-generation cryptocurrency development hopes to address known challenges of sustainability (power/efficiency), interoperability (international policies & compliance) and scalability. Some think these issues will be resolved through a combination of diplomacy, infrastructure innovation, intelligent data management and artificial intelligence. Since development has been driven by financial applications, few college and university computer science programs have been concerned with it. However, that culture is shifting as blockchain’s benefits become known across sectors. DIGI-FI participants will be selected for their ability to affect positive change at their home institutions, and in regions they serve, which should help prepare the global workforce for a blockchain revolution.

Theme, purpose and scope

Economic empowerment fosters social stability, public health and world peace. But poverty alleviation relies on financial inclusion, and there are still many obstacles to overcome in the world’s poorest regions, especially for women. Earth’s population, currently at 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. Half of that growth will take place in nine countries, including India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United States of America, Uganda, and Indonesia. Many African countries are expected to double in size; women and children will comprise the majority.2

In developing countries that aren’t fully mechanized, a greater number earn a living from agriculture. 3 With added exposure, farm children are more likely to pursue academic tracks and careers in related industries. But that’s no longer the case in the U.S. where only about two percent farm (vs. 83 percent in 1800, and 21 percent in 1930). This shift demands a greater emphasis on urban agricultural education if we hope to produce enough agricultural economists, scientists and engineers to meet development and production goals for future food, feed, fiber and fuel.4

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, climate change disproportionately affects food insecure regions, and extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas.5 Deserts are growing, while urbanization and poor soil management have claimed many arable acres. Poor, agrarian communities lack a social safety net, and are forced to migrate when growing conditions deteriorate.

A study by Oanh Le Thi Kim and Truong Le Minh of Van Lang University in Vietnam found that with rising sea levels, some rice fields are contaminated by encroaching salt water, while others have been compromised by drought. Twenty-four thousand people who are affected by these conditions leave the Mekong Delta each year. By conservative estimate, according to Kim and Minh, that’s about 14.5 percent of the region’s total.6 Such rapid population shifts impact social stability when a critical mass of climate refugees threatens the quality of life, health, safety, employment, food and/or water security in prospective host communities.

In a data-driven study published in the March 2015 edition of the Journal of Economic History, agricultural economists and agronomists who support the International Science & Technology Practice & Policy (InSTePP) center at the University of Minnesota offered empirical proof that climate change caused the North American footprint of agriculture to shift over a 128-year period. 7  Another InSTePP study found that pests and diseases adapt to climatic changes quicker than scientists can develop and market solutions to combat their destruction.8 Such rapidly-changing conditions present challenges for policymakers who are faced with many emerging and competing priorities for limited public funds; it’s more difficult than ever to support the research and development needed to ensure a globally food secure future.

Women are important to the global food security equation for many reasons. They generally comprise half of all births, and outlive men, on average, by 4.5 years; longer where there is social unrest, pandemics or where men work in high-risk occupations, such as farming. Life expectancy has increased by about ten years globally.9  Women are more likely to care for children, disabled and aging community members, so their general education is often neglected. If they go to college, they’re less likely to pursue STEM or businesses disciplines, and are therefore ill-prepared to manage a profitable farm. From a national standpoint, it’s difficult to compete in a global economy when half of your potential is hamstrung.

But even under the best circumstances, poor infrastructure—power, network and roads—diminishes profit margins since transit and inputs are more expensive with each mile. With less financial cushion, farming operations are especially vulnerable to economic shocks. Subsistence farmers benefit from low-interest loans to carry them until crops are sold, but there are few bricks-and-mortar banks in the most remote regions, and credit-based financial portfolios are usually designed to accommodate urban interests.

With broader adoption and coverage of mobile technologies, financial inclusion and precision agriculture are at the fingertips of today’s digitally-savvy farmers. According to World Bank, new and emerging markets spanning all industries can be supported by digital finance solutions. Each presents unique computational challenges that are solved by drawing from a variety of proprietary and open data, which consider risk analyses, market forecasting, economics, actuarial science, supply-chain fulfillment, logistics, cost-recovery analyses, geospatial context, and more. The most useful solutions are developed by multidisciplinary teams. Socially-responsible engineering will lead to cheaper, smarter and more secure agri-business solutions for subsistence farmers.

In developed countries, the Internet was adopted gradually over a period of decades via desktop computers. Consumers were acquainted with cyber risk as the number and severity of threats increased, and it’s easier to safeguard desktop computers that are connected to an enterprise network. There was time to develop and incorporate best practices for security, and educate everyone about associated dangers. Major breaches and other e-crimes continue to make headline news and go viral on social media. While none are immune to risk, early adopters have grown wiser; they’re more careful since they know what’s at stake. They’re less likely to have personal or research data exploited.

Conversely, sub-Saharan Internet penetration occurred much later, and largely via mobile technologies; faster than the World Bank could anticipate. Mobile technologies are not as easy to secure as desktop computers. For the most part, it’s up to the end-user to ensure they exercise caution. Because these consumers skipped the desktop, there’s a knowledge gap where privacy (medical/personal and financial data) and cybersecurity are concerned.

This photo was taken recently by Professor Regina Maphanga (then U-Limpopo, now CSIR) during a university outreach activity. She asked scholars in a rural, Limpopo, South Africa community to “show me your mobile!” As you can see, devices that would seem antiquated to consumers in more developed regions are in use much longer. This is the case where new technology is cost-prohibitive and difficult to access.

In Botswana, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the United Nations’ specialized agency for Information and Communication Technologies, 0.3 percent reported having access to the Internet in 2000, and 28.4 percent in 2015.10 However, telecom companies who serve the region claimed there were 1.6 mobile SIMs in use per person in Botswana in 2016. Some have business cases that require multiple SIMs and pay-as-you-go cards are used by those who lack the financial clout necessary to secure a mobile contract.  Internet-by-SIM makes it easier to govern the cost of data usage, as in the case with minors. African land-based connectivity is expensive, sparse and often flaky, so desktop computers are accessed infrequently and typically for official business from an office, public library or school.

These conditions, combined with Africa’s power grid problems, make mobile technologies the most practical choice for financial, business, recreation and social Internet engagement. It’s important, however for those who develop digital solutions with these consumers in mind to fully understand their needs, challenges and goals.

DIGI-FI@PEARC will inspire the development of blockchain-based resources that are light at the end-point and responsive to a range of devices; not just the latest iPhone. App designers will be encouraged to incorporate ways to teach financial stewardship, privacy and cybersecurity best practices.

Economic empowerment depends on systemic inclusion, which demands a well-informed and digitally-equipped citizenry. Next-generation Internet will require gigabit apps that simply won’t work with older devices; which is already the case for many applications. However, great strides will be made if more engineers design for a broader range of device models now so that those who would benefit the most from access aren’t left further behind in the future.11

Photo by Elizabeth Leake (STEM-Trek), December, 2017. Late afternoon sidewalk market near Mbabane, Swaziland.


  1. IBM Global reports 75 percent savings in the time it takes to mediate disputes across 4000 suppliers in a supply chain using Blockchain. Accessed Feb. 13, 2018:
  2. Report by the United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs; World Population Prospects (2017, June 21). Accessed Feb. 13, 2018:
  3. “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Facts and Figures on Life Expectancy. Published by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Accessed Feb. 13, 2018:
  4. Esters, L. T., and Bowen L. T. (Iowa State University). “Factors influencing career choices of urban agricultural education students.” Published by the Journal of Agricultural Education, Volume 46, No. 2, 2005. Accessed March 3, 2018:
  5. Report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2017: “The Future of Food and Agriculture; Trends and Challenges.” Accessed Feb. 28, 2018:
  6. Chapman, A. and Pham Dang Tri, V., “Vietnamese farmers are migrating en masse to escape climate change.” Published in, Jan. 29, 2018. Accessed Feb. 28, 2018:
  7. Beddow, J. and Pardey, P (University of Minnesota, InSTePP). Study published in the March 2015 edition of The Journal of Economic History. Summarized in a guest commentary by Elizabeth Leake titled, “Moving Matters: The Effect of Location on Crop Production,” published July 8, 2015 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
  8. Kritikos, D. J. (et. Al). Study published in the March 18, 2015 edition of PLOS ONE. Summarized in a guest commentary by Elizabeth Leake titled, “‘Superbug’ North American Invasion: Is it Just a Matter of Time?” Published May 12, 2015 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
  9. World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory (GHO), Life expectancy for women and men. URL accessed February 13, 2018:
  10. Report by the United Nations’ Broadband Commission.“The State of Broadband: Broadband Catalyzing Sustainable Development 2015.”  Accessed Feb. 13, 2018:
  11. Bigelow, Bruce V. “Smart City Initiative Spurs Gigabit Apps for Next Gen Internet,” published by (2018, Feb. 23). Accessed March 1, 2018:

Caption for group photo: URISC@SC17 delegates from 11 countries (12 US states/8 EPSCoR) attended a STEM-Trek cybersecurity workshop during the annual supercomputing conference, Nov. 11-16, 2017 in Denver, Colorado-U.S. URISC was supported by US National Science Foundation grants managed by Indiana University and Oklahoma State University, with STEM-Trek donations from Google, Corelight, Hermes Worldwide Transportation, and the SC17 conference (General Chair Bernd Mohr (Jülich Supercomputing Centre) with support from Inclusivity Chair Toni Collis (Collis Holmes Innovations, formerly at U-Edinburgh)).