Beijing takes the software pearl in Macau's crown

November 5, 1999

Next month, China extends its borders and gains the world-class software institute where Jonathan Bowen has just spent the summer

Macau is only an hour's hydrofoil ride from Hong Kong across the impressively wide Pearl River estuary. Like its near cousin, it has historically been a trading post, but administered by the Portuguese rather than the British. It is to be handed back to China on December 20.

For those who know something of Macau, it probably sommons up the image of casinos or perhaps the annual Grand Prix, an eastern equivalent of Monaco.

Macau is hemmed in even more than Hong Kong. It is one of the most densely populated territories in the world, being essentially a city with little room to expand except by reclaiming land from the shallow surrounding sea, which it is doing at a considerable rate. It nestles on a tiny peninsula connected to China by a thin isthmus, site of the historic Border Gate, and two small islands connected by spectacular bridges and a causeway.

Among the large modern blocks are dotted occasional elegant and brightly coloured Portuguese-style colonial buildings. One of these now houses the United Nations University International Institute for Software Technology (UNU/IIST).

The institute was formally established in 1992 as a research and training centre within the United Nations University, a globally distributed institution with headquarters in Tokyo.

It was set up by the dynamic Danish sinophile Dines Bjorner and is now continuing under the leadership of the current director, Zhou Chaochen. In March this year, the institute moved into its new permanent home, the impressively renovated Casa Silva Mendes on the hillside below the Guia Fortress, directly overlooking a sharp bend on the winding Grand Prix course.

Funding for UNU/IIST has been provided by China, Portugal and the Macau government. The institute concentrates on the software technology requirements of developing countries. Its international credentials give it a unique position in this respect.

The expertise of research personnel at the institute is largely in the area of formal methods, aimed at reducing errors in software using mathematically based development techniques, especially at the requirements, specification and design stages. But its overall remit is wider than this.

Each year UNU/IIST offers a number of fellowships to researchers, lecturers and software engineers from developing countries, enabling them to study software technology in a world-class environment. Often this is undertaken as part of their postgraduate degree programme.

A number of short but intensive courses are normally provided at the start of the year. Then, in consultation with a tutor, students select a topic for deeper study, typically as part of some larger ongoing project. A developing alumni association helps fellows to feel they are still part of the UNU/IIST community after returning to their own country.

As well as the courses in Macau, UNU/IIST sends its personnel to give similar courses in developing countries around the world as demand dictates. Its sphere of influence covers Africa, Asia, the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Central Europe.

Some countries have yet to establish an undergraduate computer science degree programme. In such cases UNU/IIST can help provide expertise in initial curriculum development and other aspects. In general, the institute is willing to help developing countries in any aspect of improving training, research and development capabilities.

To allow researchers and lecturers from developing lands to experience research and teaching techniques in industrialised countries, UNU/IIST is seeking to collaborate with universities around the world in exchanges of personnel for short periods. In the United Kingdom UNU/IIST has initiated memoranda of understanding with the universities of Leicester, Oxford and York and Queens University Belfast. It is keen to forge links with more UK universities.

Jonathan Bowen is a lecturer in computer science, University of Reading. 'Italy has never had the kind of secure and powerful government majority that allowed radical reforms in research funding to be carried out in the UK in the 1980s'

Paul Bompard

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