On Friday, 19 May 2023, the first Research Software Indaba took place in Cape Town, South Africa. The event was the first of its kind to be held on the African continent and focussed exclusively on topics related to the research software and systems ecosystem.
The event was attended by 20 participants who mostly came from the Western Cape while others came from Gauteng, the North West province, and one person was from as far as Kenya.
The Research Software Indaba is a culmination of many years of attempts to grow an African community of practice around research software and systems. More than 50 organisations, departments, research projects, and relevant initiatives representing diverse fields such as bioinformatics, astrophysics, humanities and social sciences, high-performance computing, eResearch, IT, scientific computing, funding, and open science were invited.
To learn more about the history of the African research software and systems community of practice between 2014 and 2023, please visit the community website – https://rsse.africa/history/.
The global RSE landscape
Internationally, the research software movement has been gathering momentum since around 2012 when the term Research Software Engineer (RSE) was coined as a job title for someone who spends most of their time writing code whilst working in a research environment. Over time it has become clear that there is a dire need to recognise the importance of research software and those who develop it, to enhance research quality, reproducibility, and sustainability. To this effect, organisations such as the UK’s Software Sustainability Institute (SSI) have been working tirelessly to gather information about research software engineers’ experience, job prospects, training opportunities, practices and more to grow a body of evidence to support them.
At the Indaba, Prof Simon Hettrick, deputy director of the UK SSI, introduced the concept of RSEs and gave a whirlwind overview of the RSE movement, specifically focusing on communities, awareness, policy, and skills. Dr Michelle Barker, director of ReSA, spoke about ReSA’s role in bringing together decision-makers and funders to develop resources and policies to advance the global research software ecosystem.
Research software and systems in Africa
Whereas the international movement is focused on research software, the African community explicitly includes research systems (i.e. computing and data infrastructure and other relevant peripherals) as these concepts are tightly integrated.
Through participant introductions, we learned about various local and regional initiatives that support research software and systems development, such as the eLwazi Open Data Science Platform, which forms part of the NIH Common Fund’s Harnessing Data Science for Health Discovery and Innovation in Africa (DS-I Africa) programme.
Representatives from the Center for High-Performance Computing, the University of Cape Town’s Scientific Computing Research Unit and the South African National Bioinformatics Institute discussed shared experiences around the impact of load shedding* on compute and data-intensive research on the continent.
Friedel Wolff, technical manager at the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), briefly introduced skills development and the challenges related to recruiting and retaining highly skilled employees and team members with an understanding of and experience with both research and software development. From the ensuing discussion, it was clear that this is a pervasive issue experienced by all participating organisations.
Training availability and opportunities
The Carpentries is a non-profit organisation that teaches researchers foundational coding and data science skills worldwide. They have been playing an integral role in providing training for the RSE community over the years and have also grown a footprint in Africa since 2014. Angelique Trusler, African Capacity Development Manager at The Carpentries, shared exciting information about opportunities to enhance one’s coding skills and grow as a trainer.
Many of the other participants were involved in training through short courses, academic curricula, postgraduate training and research in their various capacities.
Research software sustainability and funding
“It [The funders’ forum] provides a formal mechanism for funders to share practices and consider how to address common challenges to achieve the significant cultural change needed across the research sector globally and is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.”
More than 25 funders across the globe have engaged with ReSA via the forum, but very few funding bodies from the African continent are involved. In 2022 ReSA and the Netherlands eScience Centre organised the first International Funders Workshop where funding organisations were invited to join forces to explore how they can effectively contribute to making research software sustainable. The second international funders workshop is being planned in collaboration with the Digital Research Alliance of Canada and will be held in Montreal in September 2023. Michelle appealed to participants to help identify organisations that fund research software, either directly or as a by-product of research, who might be interested in joining both the workshop and the Funders’ forum.
Participants agreed that it was very important not only to keep on discussing the topics that were on the Research Software Indaba agenda but to identify actions that can be taken to enhance African research software and systems sustainability and in effect research in general.
A number of short and medium-term actions were identified to keep the momentum of the Indaba going:
- We have created a mailing list to share ideas, opportunities and resources and to keep the conversation going. Anyone interested in joining the discussions can now sign up for the RSSE Africa Discuss mailing list. The list is hosted on Topicbox where we can create other lists for more specific sub-communities and topics as the community grows;
- A need was expressed for a succinct information leaflet explaining the RSE movement and relevant organisations and opportunities to circulate to colleagues. The existing RSSE Africa flyer was updated and is now available as a PDF via Zenodo;
- A report from the event has been published under an open license and is available on the RSSE Africa community on Zenodo;
- Identify African funding bodies who might be interested in joining the Research Software Funders Forum and participating in the second International Research Software Funders Workshop (organisations that have been invited: Science for Africa Foundation and the Science Granting Councils Initiative)
- In order to grow more awareness and share information about the current landscape of research software and systems, particularly in South Africa, participants will collaborate on a paper for submission to the South African Journal of Science in 2023; and
- A proposal for a follow-up African Research Software and Systems event will be submitted to the annual CHPC conference taking place in the first week of December 2023 to ensure the broader community has an opportunity to join the conversation and contribute to the growing movement towards research software and systems sustainability on the continent.
The Research Software Indaba was indeed a catalyst for fruitful discussions and much-needed action. We look forward to continued collaborations and advancement in research software and systems on the continent.
* Load shedding: The process by which an electric utility cuts power to some customers in response to a shortage of available electricity.
The event was organised by Talarify in partnership with ReSA and RSSE-Africa.
Event sponsor: Talarify