My research uses ethnographic and participatory design methods to understand how people use information and communication technologies for community formation and economic development in the rural Midwestern United States. I am more broadly interested in how rural places, their contemporary and historical problems, and the proposed future solutions, are envisioned as being essential to American economic and technological progress.
Human-Centered Infrastructure Design and the Future of Rural Digital Connectivity (2022-present)
Despite a growing understanding of the digital divide that accounts for a wide spectrum of influence, including accessibility, socioeconomics, geography, technology maintenance, and general technological access, infrastructural solutions to address digital inequality are still largely one size fits all and operate within a connected-disconnected binary. In doing so, normative approaches to infrastructural connectivity—always connected on one side, always disconnected on the other side—permeate our data collection, influencing not only how we frame issues of digital equity, but what we see as possible through Internet access. This binary at best limits our understanding of rural connectivity needs, and at worst results in misguided policy and infrastructural investment that assumes rural connectivity needs, and the infrastructure that serves those needs, look the same as urban needs and infrastructure. This project, funded through a research gift from the Merit Network, seeks to understand what the localized connectivity needs of rural people are and how we might design infrastructure so it better serves rural connectivity from a rural perspective. To do this, we will be conducting ethnographic fieldwork and participatory design workshops in the eastern Upper Peninsula in late 2022 and early 2023.
Technological Capacity Building in Non-Profit Community Farms (2022-present)
I am working with Partridge Creek Farm (PCF), a non-profit community farm in Ishpeming, Michigan that promotes K-12 education and local food access in the Central Upper Peninsula. With the support of the Comprehensive Economic Recovery Initiative funded through the CARES Act, we purchased a set of agricultural sensors for the farm and are evaluating how PCF is adopting novel digital technology and the resulting data to serve their mission. Our goal is to develop recommendations for other community farms and small-scale agricultural operations to develop their own low-cost, low-scale sensor networks. I am currently working with a Masters RA to experiment with the creation of low-cost sensor hardware to complement the empirical observations being conducted with community farms. This work is funded by MSU’s Center for Community & Economic Development.
The Rural Innovation Policy Project (2022-present)
I am currently conducting a pilot study to evaluate how rural innovation and rural technological advancement is being supported directly through legislative action. This research seeks to understand if federal policy support for rural innovation is designed for rural innovation needs or is projecting urban expectations of innovation onto rural regions. To do this, we will be analyzing a subset of recent federal policy and budget documents for their support of rural innovation. We will begin by defining and delineating what activities typically support rural innovation and will select pieces of legislation (e.g., the 2018 Farm Bill) to identify where those activities are present, if at all. For the legislation that is identified as supporting rural innovation, we will follow the policy and budget downstream to the entities who were on the receiving end of funding to evaluate how the funds were used to support innovation activities. In doing so, we hope to develop a new framework for analyzing and understanding the support of rural innovation in government. If successful, this framework will allow us to scale up our analysis and could be used by other researchers and policy makers who are interested in evaluating the outcomes of policy and its support for rural innovation. This research is currently supported by MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development.
The LGBTQ Futures Project: Exploring the intersection of technology and community for LGBTQ people in the Rural Midwestern United States (2017-present)
I lead a research team including co-researchers from Northern Michigan University (and previously at Michigan Technological University) conducting participatory design and qualitative research with LGBTQ people living in rural and remote communities across the Upper Midwest. We are exploring how our participants envision the future of technology and community institutions for LGBTQ people. This research seeks to generate a better understanding of both rural and LGBTQ users of digital technologies and provide information and data to community service providers in rural areas so they may better service LGBTQ populations.
In 2018, we initially conducted a series of six participatory design workshops across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Preliminary results from this research were published in the Companion of the 2019 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (co-authored with Stefani Vargas; PDF pre-print) and Interactions Magazine (co-authored with Chanda Phelan, Dr. Norman Makoto Su, Dr. Morgan Vigil-Hayes, Dr. Susan Wyche, and Dr. Phoebe Sengers; open access PDF here). An additional paper on the full results of these workshops is currently under review. This phased of research was funded by the University of Michigan Spectrum Center’s Gadawski-Callam LGBTQ Project-Based Grant and the School of Information’s Initiative for Information Impact.
We are currently working on a new phase of research on the information and resource needs of incoming LGBTQ students at rural colleges and universities. As of 2022 we are conducting generative user research with incoming students at Northern Michigan University, in partnership with the Student Equity and Engagement Center. We are working towards developing a digital platform to be deployed in 2023 to assist rural young LGBTQ people with their identity-based information needs.
Rural Transformation in the 21st Century (2017-present)
I am engaged in a long-term ethnographic project investigating the promotion of innovation and high-tech entrepreneurship as key elements for contemporary rural economic development. I am concerned with how unique aspects of rural culture, natural resources, and geographic remoteness get transformed into assets that can be leveraged by a variety of actors in the name of technological advancement and post-industrial economic recovery. Through this work, I have collaborated with a variety of regional economic developers and civic leaders in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Key insights from the first 2.5 years of this research make up the basis of my PhD dissertation, titled Rural Transformation in the 21st Century: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and High-Tech Economies in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Preliminary theoretical research on the role of social media in remote rural communities was published in the Companion of the 2019 ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (PDF pre-print) where it won the Best Provocation Award. A comprehensive scoping review of human-computer interaction literature on rural research (co-authored with Dr. Susan Wyche and Dr. Tiffany Veinot) appeared in Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction (PDF pre-print) and was presented at the 2019 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. Relevant work on what I call the “rural information penalty” was published in the Proceedings of the 2022 iConference (PDF link TBD). Two papers from this project are currently under review, including one paper on asset-based community development and rural infrastructure projects and another paper on the role of talent attraction in constructing the image of the high-tech rural entrepreneur. I am also working on a book project based on this research.
Social technology and LGBTQ people in the rural Midwest (2015-2018)
This long-term ethnographic investigated the uses of social technologies, particularly social media, by LGBTQ people in the rural Midwest. I focused on how rural LGBTQ people use social media to navigate identity-based resources and information, social relationships, and the need for community space in lieu of resources typically utilized by LGBTQ populations in urban areas (e.g. bars, bookstores, community centers). Results of this research appear in Information, Communication & Society (PDF; blog post).
Location-based social networks and rural gay men (2014-2016)
This research began with a Master’s thesis project on the use of location-based social networks by gay men in the rural Midwest. The resulting thesis focused primarily on the mediating role of rurality in finding community, navigating sexual relationships, and privacy and safety concerns. It used content analysis of user profiles in urban and rural areas throughout Michigan and semi-structured interviews with users in the rural Midwest. Results of this work (co-authored with Silvia Lindtner) appeared in the Proceedings of the 20th Annual ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (PDF pre-print) and received an Honorable Mention for Best Paper (top 5% of papers).
User acceptance of location tracking technologies in health research (2015-2016)
This research lead by Dr. Tiffany Veinot assessed the feasibility of using GPS-based data collection techniques for measuring chronic illness management activities. To do this, we deployed smartphones and smart-watches with approximately 25 people with chronic illnesses for a month long period in which the devices recorded location data and daily surveys were pushed to participants. In addition, we conducted two interviews with participants about the devices, their ease of use, and data quality. The results of this research (co-authored with Dr. Veinot and others) appear in the Journal of Biomedical Informatics (PDF pre-print) and the Journal of Medical Internet Research (open access available here).
LGBT parents and social media (2015)
This interview study explored the unique experiences of LGBT parents as they navigate their own identity and privacy concerns in tandem with the challenges of child-rearing in an increasingly digital context. The results of this work appeared in the Proceedings of the 34th Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems(PDF; 23% acceptance rate) and received an Honorable Mention for Best Paper (top 5% of papers).