URISC@SC17 cohort

DIGI-FI@PEARC19 Full Project Description

DIGI-FI@PEARC is a “Blockchain for Social Good” themed workshop that will be held during the Practice and Experience in Advanced Research Computing conference in Chicago, Illinois. Elizabeth Leake (STEM-Trek) and Alana Romanella (Virginia Tech) will co-chair a full-day of presentations, hands-on exercises and a cybersecurity panel discussion.

Blockchain experts from public and private organizations will participate, including computational science research and cybersecurity specialists who use blockchain for a variety of applications. Participants will be acquainted with blockchain’s strengths and weaknesses, and use-cases will be presented where this emerging technology underpins 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; curtail human trafficking; provide a digital identity for undocumented people; and provide a means for the “unbanked” to transfer money; (and more).


Two objectives for the DIGI-FI@PEARC workshop are:

  1. To inspire the development of socially-responsible digital products that will foster economic empowerment for those who live in under-served regions; and
  2. To enlighten those who manage federated cyberinfrastructure about blockchain’s ability to ensure data integrity, security and provenance across multiple and diverse scientific workflows.

Why Blockchain?

According to International Business Machines (IBM), blockchain 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  IBM’s Blockchain in Action Blog features many more use-cases.


In addition to hands-on training in the use of open-source tools, delegates will benefit from presentations led by those who work with blockchain—otherwise known as secure, replicated log technologies—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. While student DIGI-FI delegates are encouraged to participate in PEARC student program activities, that program has a separate application and approval process.

How prospects will apply for travel support

This workshop will be open to all PEARC conference attendees. STEM-Trek will support travel for a limited number via separate application process (funds pending). Those who receive travel support are required to attend the DIGI-FI workshop on Monday. A call for participation will be launched 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 (which includes minority-serving listservs and social media sites (Women in HPC, Veterans Affairs, Wounded Warriors, Minority Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, etc.). Application developers and early-career cyberinfrastructure (CI) leaders from demographics that have traditionally been underrepresented in CI leadership are especially encouraged to apply. Successful applicants will be aged 21 years old, or older.

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

Applications will be reviewed by a multinational (expert) panel. 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.

U.S. applicants

  1. All qualified applications are welcome; veterans, women and ethnic minorities (in STEM) are especially 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).
  3. Note: Foreign nationals’ international travel will be covered by external sources via STEM-Trek (not paid for with US government funding).

All applicants must provide:

  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?” & “How I will pay-it-forward.”
  4. A photograph/head shot (for publicity purposes with the applicant’s permission).
  5. Passport photo page image file.
  6. OPTIONAL: Answer a lifestyle survey to help us with room-mate pairing (this helps to predetermine compatibility; if they don’t complete it, they must trust our choice. Appeals will only be heard in the case of contagious illness, or other emergency (last-minute changes to room with someone they recognize is not a viable reason to appeal; delegates are encouraged to meet new people/that’s part of the experience!).

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 according to the United Nations, the average age of farmers worldwide is 60.4 In the U.S., 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.5

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.6 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.7 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.8 Another InSTePP study found that pests and diseases adapt to climatic changes quicker than scientists can develop and market solutions to combat their destruction.9 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.10  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.

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 2015.11

Photo by Regina Maphanga (CSIR, South Africa): During a rural university outreach activity, scholars were asked to “show us your mobile!” This is where Blackberries go to live another ten years.

However, Botswana’s telecom companies 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. But even mobile technologies used in sub-Saharan Africa may seem antiquated by western standards. Hardware is comparatively more expensive and difficult to come by. It’s therefore important 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.12

Dissemination Plan

Media coverage of all activities is recorded on the STEM-Trek site for future reference. Here is the STEM-Trek media coverage from PEARC17: https://www.stem-trek.org/news-event/pearc17-media/

STEM-Trek Nonprofit maintains an event-based FaceBook community that changes its identity for each major program (SC, PEARC, etc.). This provides a place for delegates to share informal anecdotes, photography and other content before, during and after the activity (where they can see content from past activities, too). Social media helps broadly-distributed groups begin to coalesce as a cohort before they actually meet, and for the future.

Delegates will be contacted via email, and all will have the opportunity to opt-in to social media platforms (FaceBook, WhatsApp). A feature story describing the activity and final outcomes will be released by STEM-Trek Nonprofit, and a post-event feature or features will be written in the following weeks or months. STEM-Trek and its stakeholders (collaborators, speakers and sponsors) will co-market news about the workshop. STEM-Trek has relationships with HPC industry online journals, including HPCwire and ScienceNode. Preliminary information was released to HPCwire, EDUCAUSE and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in March and April, 2018. Links to content published on the STEM-Trek site, and other resources will be shared with stakeholders. The HPC Ecosystems Project (Africa) has a Google Group, SIGHPC-RCE (ACM Virtual Special Interest Group for HPC in Resource Constrained Environment), the “Small HPC Centers Managers’ Group, CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Socioeconomic Community of Practice (Blockchain Coalition), Research Data Alliance Agriculture and Blockchain groups, and the XSEDE Campus Champions. Leake is either an administrative member of these community lists, or participates on them.

Data Management Plan (ongoing stewardship)

Presentation slides, papers, posters or any other ephemera are added to a (non-public) shared Google Drive folder that will be deleted once the workshop concludes. A temporary email resource is created for each workshop that is also deleted 18-months after the event (so that it’s useful for the following years’ planning).

Delegates are encouraged to submit pay-it-forward proposals which could be the promise to write a whitepaper, develop a course, or host a workshop, for example. Delegates are encouraged to upload any scholarly papers that come from this experience via FigShare and Google Scholar so others can access them for free, and learn from their experience. Some scholars may offer to blog for the event, and their stories are published on the STEM-Trek site; such testimonies provide unique perspectives of the conference experience. They are retained indefinitely and offer a longitudinal record of our training efforts, and what was important to the community at each point in time. Not many other programs can do this; especially if they are grant-funded and lost support after three or five years. STEM-Trek has been in operation since 2012, and is expected to be around for a long time (we hope!).

Enhancement and Improvement of STEM Research and Educational Activities

Since CI managers at resource-constrained centers wear many hats, they will benefit from access to open-source or low-cost training and tools. This workshop will introduce them to useful resources and methodologies that can be immediately employed when they return home. Since many prospective delegates are educators, the workshops ripple effect will be widespread.

Broader Impact

The broader impact of this effort is clear and far-reaching. When the Ranger system was donated to the Center for HPC in South Africa in 2012, it had already helped many thousands of U.S. researchers advance discovery and innovation during its production lifetime, before being supplanted by the more powerful NSF-supported Stampede system. Since then, that donation, and a similar system donated by the University of Cambridge, UK, has allowed students and researchers at more than a dozen African universities to not only benefit from access to computational resources, but through the additional training and knowledge transfer provided by the NSF-supported fall 2015 training exercise at TACC, and similar STEM-Trek workshops held during SC16 and SC17. In 2016-2018, the HPC Ecosystems project (as it is now called) grew beyond the SADC 16-nation region to include Ghana and Ethiopia. As a result of publicity published after the SC17 program, several more African nations applied for eduGAIN membership, and inquired about forming national research and education networks (NRENs) which will make it possible for them to engage with more globally-collaborative research (and provide unique African data). At each location, a growing number of students, faculty and staff are learning the skills necessary to deploy and operate cluster computers and manage big data from a variety of disciplines.

STEM-Trek workshops maintain a 50/50 ratio: US and international delegates. With our SC16 and SC17 workshops, most US delegates were XSEDE Campus Champions. The same will be true for the PEARC19 workshop (half will be from the US), and we expect many XSEDE Campus Champions will apply. Americans who attended previous workshops have gone on to collaborate with African colleagues they met at STEM-Trek workshops, and new projects have been formed in Physics, Bio, and Cybersecurity (to name a few). Because they continue to interact via social media, they are establishing trust and confidence that will likely lead to additional international collaborations.

The merit of this exercise rests in the exchange of information and best practice. Open source software and operations procedures developed by programs developed under NSF funding will be exchanged with US and international delegates. They will learn useful skills necessary to support local hardware, and engage with federated, cloud-based resources and services sponsored by XSEDE. Participants will also learn from each other, and their relationships will support additional research collaborations among their respective communities in the future.

All workshop materials will be shared with delegates and hosting organizations so they may continue to teach other researchers and systems administrators in the future. At the close of the workshop, a wrap-up session will encourage suggestions for future proposals. Notes from this meeting will be distributed, and may be suitable for a BoF or paper submission for future Supercomputing Conferences (or ACM Special Interest Group for HPC in Resource Constrained Regions). This activity will strengthen the support toolkit used by delegates who are responsible for securing research computing systems, and help scientists understand how secure blockchain could be used to underpin discoveries that change the world.

Building STEM Talent (Professional Development):

One goal for this workshop is to provide professional development that will enable technical and educational personnel to become CI leaders in their respective states, territories or nations.13 These skills will lead to employment. Blockchain is being embraced by the Consumer Goods Blockchain Forum—with representation from commercial giants such as Nestle, Walmart, Proctor and Gamble, and McDonalds; CGF represents 400 stakeholders in 70 countries and employs directly 10 million, and indirectly 90 million along the value chain. IBM’s blockchain development team reportedly employs 1,500, according to an April 16, 2018 CNBC article by Ruth Umoh. 14

Underrepresented Populations: This workshop will train emerging CI leaders from populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in CI leadership, including (a) women, (b) underrepresented minorities, (c) those who can pay-it-forward at land-grant institutions, and (d) those who work at institutions in EPSCoR jurisdictions. An advocacy session will offer strategies for developing and fostering diverse teams and a culture of inclusion.

Media coverage from past and future projects:

2016 (with support from NSF, Google, Cray, Dell, Intel, and others):


2017 (with support from NSF, Google, Micron Foundation, and others):


The “Longest Last Mile” article was published by HPCwire on January 11, 2018. In February, Leake received a letter from Nick Roy (Internet2/InCommon) thanking her for writing this feature which inspired several African sites to apply for eduGAIN access, and Uganda was (at that time) vetted and had become the 55th eduGAIN member organization. Additional African nation-states sought guidance from existing NRENs and STEM-Trek regarding how they might form NRENS (National Research & Education Networks) after managers read this article.

Through URISC participant survey feedback, we learned that one US university is developing a cybersecurity undergraduate course that will be reviewed and hopefully approved in May, 2018 (until then, it’s confidential). Open-source resources shared by Von Welch (Indiana University) have been incorporated in that program.

2019 (we hope DIGI-FI@PEARC19 will be funded):




  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: https://www.ibm.com/blockchain/infographic/finance.html
  2. Report by the United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs; World Population Prospects (2017, June 21). Accessed Feb. 13, 2018: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html
  3. “Towards a Sustainable Future,” Facts and Figures on Life Expectancy. Published by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Accessed Feb. 13, 2018: http://www.sadc.int/about-sadc/overview/sadc-facts-figures/#LifeExpectancy
  4. 2014 Report by the Food and Agricultural Organization (United Nations), page 2: http://www.un.org/en/ecosoc/integration/pdf/foodandagricultureorganization.pdf
  5. 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: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=
  6. 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: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i6583e.pdf
  7. Chapman, A. and Pham Dang Tri, V., “Vietnamese farmers are migrating en masse to escape climate change.” Published in Quartz.com, Jan. 29, 2018. Accessed Feb. 28, 2018: https://qz.com/1189725/vietnamese-farmers-are-migrating-en-masse-to-escape-climate-change/
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory (GHO), Life expectancy for women and men. URL accessed February 13, 2018: http://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/en/
  11. Report by the United Nations’ Broadband Commission.“The State of Broadband: Broadband Catalyzing Sustainable Development 2015.”  Accessed Feb. 13, 2018: http://www.broadbandcommission.org/Documents/reports/bb-annualreport2016.pdf
  12. Bigelow, Bruce V. “Smart City Initiative Spurs Gigabit Apps for Next Gen Internet,” published by Xconomy.com (2018, Feb. 23). Accessed March 1, 2018: https://www.xconomy.com/san-diego/2018/02/23/smart-cities-initiative-spurs-gigabit-apps-for-next-gen-internet/?single_page=true
  13. US workforce development road map; visions of the Feb. 14, 2018 Congressional Hearing, “Beyond Bitcoin: Emerging Applications for Blockchain Technology,” a Joint hearing from two congressional subcommittees:  https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=106862
  14. Umoh, Ruth, “IBM Blockchain Team is Led by Women; Here’s why that’s a big deal in Silicon Valley.” Published by CNBC (April 16, 2018). https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/16/ibms-blockchain-team-is-led-by-women.html

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)).