I recently helped one of our scientists put together an application for an industry-partnered bioinformatics grant. I understand the company in question to be more or less universally recognised as the leader in its field and therefore the obvious partner for this grant, but because it’s based in the US we had to complete a one-page justification for choosing a non-Canadian partner. After reading the very technical document explaining in great detail why this company is the only one in the world with the right products and expertise for the job, I joked with the scientist who wrote it that we should really just be able to write “you can’t do this stuff on a Blackberry” and be done with it.
In this specific case, the lack of an equivalent Canadian partner isn’t a problem – it won’t make or break this grant’s chances in review. But we’re increasingly running into situations where the lack of Canadian equivalents to American tech companies and their products is hampering our ability to take advantage of all those wonderful cloud computing tools that make research flow so much more smoothly. I’m sure that researchers in other countries with small populations and/or a lack of resources are experiencing the same thing.
The problem is caused by the fact that any data hosted even temporarily on US-based servers are subject to the Patriot Act, meaning that their confidentiality can not be assured. This Act is incompatible with our own privacy laws – Canada in general and British Columbia in particular have very strict regulations on the sharing of personal data – and the BC government agency to which we ultimately report is starting to really crack down on the use of potentially problematic tools. We’ve already been told that we can’t use Doodle Polls to organise meetings without inserting three paragraphs worth of privacy disclaimers into the email linking to the poll, and might soon lose our ability to use this tool at all; we just heard that SurveyMonkey is being banned outright; and Google Drive / DropBox / iCloud / Skype / Google Chat & Hangout / blogs / social media / various webinar and desktop sharing tools will quite possibly be next.
We use these tools all the time – to schedule and conduct meetings with internal staff and external collaborators, to share data with collaborators, to collaboratively write grants and papers with people from all over the world. Sure, we managed before these tools existed, but when all the other investigators involved in a massive global genomics consortium can use the cloud and we’re the only ones not able to participate, it’s going to be a problem.
We’ve been trying to find Canadian equivalents of everything listed above, but so far all we’ve come up with is FluidSurveys – a replacement for SurveyMonkey, one of the least-used tools on the list. A good start, but not good enough! If I had the technical ability I’d be working on creating some alternative tools myself, but since I don’t, I’m putting this post out there with the hope that readers will either be able to point me to some options we haven’t found yet, and / or that someone who knows what they’re doing will use it as inspiration. Who knows, maybe the big US tech companies will even read it and decide to create some country-specific servers to allow the rest of us to join in the American cloud dream… that would be a silver lining indeed!