A versatile Cloud Computing environment to facilitate African-European partnership in research: EO AFRICA R&D Innovation Lab

Fabian Adam, Robin Leclair, Brice Mora, Nicu Stancioi, Tereza Roth, M. Farnaghi, Serkan Girgin, Z. Vekerdy

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterAcademic

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Abstract

The African Framework for Research, Innovation, Communities and Applications (EO AFRICA) is an ESA initiative in collaboration with the African Union Commission that aims to foster an African-European R&D partnership facilitating the sustainable adoption of Earth Observation and related space technologies in Africa. EO AFRICA R&D Facility is the flagship of EO AFRICA with the overarching goals of enabling an active research community and promoting creative and collaborative innovation processes by providing funding, advanced training, and computing resources. The Innovation Lab is a state-of-the-art Cloud Computing infrastructure provided by the Facility to 30 research projects of African-European research tandems and participants of the capacity development activities of the Space Academy. The Innovation Lab creates new opportunities for innovative research to develop EO algorithms and applications adapted to African challenges and needs, through interactive Virtual Research Environments (VREs) with ready-to-use research and EO analysis software, and facilitated access to a wide range of analysis-ready EO datasets by leveraging the host DIAS infrastructure.

The Innovation Lab is a cloud-based, user-friendly, and versatile Platform as a service (PaaS) that allows the users to develop, test, run, and optimize their research code making full use of the Copernicus DIAS infrastructure and a tailor-made interactive computing environment for geospatial analysis. Co-located data and computing services enable fast data exploitation and analysis, which in turn facilitates the utilization of multi-spectral spatiotemporal big data and machine learning methods. Each user has direct access to all online EO data available on the host DIAS (CreoDIAS), especially for Africa, and if required, can also request archived data, which is automatically retrieved and made available within a short delay. The Innovation Lab also supports user-provided in-situ data and allows access to EO data on the Cloud (e.g., other DIASes, CNES PEPS, Copernicus Hub, etc.) through a unified and easy-to-use and open-source data access API (EODAG). Because all data access and analysis are performed on the server-side, the platform does not require a fast Internet connection, and it is adapted for low bandwidth access to enable active collaboration of African – European research tandems. As a minimum configuration, each user has access to computing units with four virtual CPUs, 32 GB RAM, 100 GB local SSD storage, and 1 TB network storage. To a limited extent and for specific needs (e.g., AI applications like Deep Learning), GPU-enabled computing units are also provided.

The user interface of the Innovation Lab allows the use of interactive Jupyter notebooks through the JupyterLab environment, which is served by a JupyterHub deployment with improved security and scalability features. For advanced research code development purposes, the Innovation Lab features a web-based VS Code integrated development environment, which provides specialized tools for programming in different languages, such as Python and R. Code analytics tools are also available for benchmarking, code profiling, and memory/performance monitoring. For specific EO workflows that require exploiting desktop applications (e.g., ESA SNAP, QGIS) for pre-processing, analysis, or visualization purposes, the Innovation Lab provides a web-based remote desktop with ready-to-use EO desktop applications. The users can also customize their working environment by using standard package managers.

As endorsed by the European Commission Open Science approach, data and code sharing and versioning are crucial to allow reuse and reproduction of the algorithms, workflows, and results. In this context, the Innovation Lab has tools integrated into its interactive development environment that provide direct access to code repositories and allow easy version control. Although public code repositories (e.g., Github) are advised for better visibility, the Innovation Lab also includes a dedicated code repository to support the users' particular needs (e.g., storage of sensitive information). The assets (e.g., files, folders) stored on the platform can be easily accessed and shared externally through the FileBrowser tool.

Besides providing a state-of-the-art computing infrastructure, the Innovation Lab also includes other necessary services to ensure a comfortable virtual research experience. All research projects granted by the EO AFRICA R&D Facility receive dedicated technical support for the Innovation Lab facilities. Scientific support and advice from senior researchers and experts for developing geospatial computing workflows are also provided. Users are able to request support contacting a helpdesk via a dedicated ticketing and chat system.

After a 6-month development and testing period, the Innovation Lab became operational in September 2021. The first field testing of the platform took place in November 2021 during a 3-day hackathon jointly organized by EO AFRICA R&D, GMES & Africa, and CURAT as part of the AfricaGIS 2021 conference. Forty participants utilized the platform to develop innovative solutions to food security and water resources challenges, such as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural production or linking the decrease in agricultural production to armed conflicts. The activity was successful and similar ones are expected to be organized during major GIS and EO conferences in Africa during the lifetime of the project. Thirty research projects of African-European research tandems granted by the Facility will utilize the Innovation Lab to develop innovative and open-source EO algorithms and applications, preferably as interactive notebooks, adapted to African solutions to African challenges in food security and water scarcity by leveraging cutting-edge cloud-based data access and computing infrastructure. The call for the first 15 research projects was published in November 2021, and the projects are expected to start using the Innovation Lab in February 2022.

In parallel, the Innovation Lab provides the computing environment for the capacity development activities of the EO AFRICA R&D Facility, which are organized under the umbrella of EO AFRICA Space Academy. These capacity development activities include several MOOCs, webinars, online and face-to-face courses designed and tailored to improve the knowledge and skills of African researchers in the utilization of Cloud Computing technology to work with EO data. Selected participants of the capacity development activities will use the Innovation Lab during their training. Moreover, the instructors in the Facility use the Innovation Lab to develop the training materials for the Space Academy. Access to the Innovation Lab will also be granted to individual researchers and EO experts depending on the use case and resource availability. Application for access can be made easily through the EO AFRICA R&D web portal after becoming a member of the EO AFRICA Community.
Original languageEnglish
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 24 May 2021
EventLiving Planet Symposium, LPS 2022 - World Conference Centre Bonn, Bonn, Germany
Duration: 23 May 202227 May 2022

Conference

ConferenceLiving Planet Symposium, LPS 2022
Abbreviated titleLPS22
Country/TerritoryGermany
CityBonn
Period23/05/2227/05/22

Keywords

  • Cloud Computing
  • Computing Platform
  • Earth Observation
  • Africa
  • Research Support
  • Capacity development

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