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NSF CAREER award supports computer scientist’

NAU Assistant Professor Morgan Vigil-Hayes

photo: NAU Assistant Professor Morgan Vigil-Hayes (center) and students Quinton Jasper and Kylie Cook recently began work on a five-year project measuring broadband coverage in rural, low-income and tribal population
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Source: Northern Arizona University

Despite numerous federally funded efforts to increase access to information and telecommunications infrastructure (ICT) across the U.S., studies have shown that rural communities — especially low-income households that income in tribal areas — continues to be excluded from access to essential services and opportunities provided through ICT. Through unequal access to a wide range of services, from health care to education to banking, these populations are experiencing significant digital inequality, affecting their quality of life. .

Computer scientist Morgan Vigil-Hayes, an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber ​​Systems, was recently awarded a $ 561,599 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for “A Community-based Approach to Empowered Information and Communication Technology Infrastructure Measurement. ” The NSF CAREER award, the foundation’s most prestigious grant to support early-career faculty, will support Vigil-Hayes ’research, which focuses on improving social justice by improving access to broadband internet service for mobile and desktop use.

One of the biggest challenges in improving access, however, is understanding how widespread the coverage gap is, both quantitative and qualitative. “To improve Internet access,” says Vigil-Hayes, “the first thing you need is an accurate baseline that shows where the service can be accessed and the quality of access. And that’s it. a big, big challenge. ”

Through his previous research, Vigil-Hayes found that industry-based measurements of the broadband services, as well as Federal Communications (FCC) broadband maps, are inaccurate, especially in rural areas. tribe in the Southwest. As part of a study conducted in Santa Clara Pueblo in Española, New Mexico, for example, the research team flew drones and circled the Pueblo using multiple cell phones to collect measurements, then compared them to the FCC broadband map. —Now considered to be the standard. They found that the coverage was rather different from the published figures, and in most cases, the FCC maps were incorrect. Since then, Vigil-Hayes and his team have conducted additional comparative studies that have also revealed significant differences between the coverage documented on the maps and the actual land coverage.

“A lot of these coverage maps are made using models. Even if that’s a quick, inexpensive way to make these maps, it’s not very accurate. And even if legislators, non-government organizations and others collect crowdsourced ICT infrastructure measurements as a way to better predict infrastructure availability, the measurement results are often incomplete, excluding rural and tribal communities, and it doesn’t always reflect cost or quality — the information that is most relevant to users.

There are many different tools available to individuals and communities to help measure broadband coverage, such as speed tests, but Vigil-Hayes and her team have found that people don’t know how to use them or not. be motivated to use it.

“I come to this problem as someone who is both an expert in measuring networks as well as an expert in human-computer interaction to understand the barriers to using these tools, if there are incentives to enable people who use these tools and understand.user concerns such as privacy and anonymity.No one has addressed this issue, but if we can get better internet in this country , it’s something that needs to happen across the U.S. So, I find it an interesting challenge that connects the things I care about and offers the opportunity to make sure we’re targeting the actual people who want and need to use Internet.

Changing ICT infrastructure monitoring methods

Vigil-Hayes and his group—Kylie Cookpursuing an MS in Computer Science and student Quinton Jasper, pursuing a BS in Applied Computer Science — will address these challenges by adopting a participatory action research (PAR) approach conducted in three phases, or strands. Their overall purpose is to determine how researchers, policy makers and community advocates can design crowdsourced ICT infrastructure measurement activities that will result in a more representative set of measurements. By designing a pilot system based on the needs of community stakeholders, ultimately, the project will change the ways in which infrastructure is generally maintained in the U.S., particularly in communities that suffer from most infrastructures that are not fair.

  • During Strand I: Investigating Conceptualizations, Barriers, and Incentives for ICT Measurement, the team will describe current collaborative, crowdsourced ICT measurement and advocacy approaches. Their goal is to apply what they have learned to design and deploy a community-based platform for supporting ICT measurement and advocacy collaborations within the local context.
  • During Strand II: Co-Design COMET, the team will go through an iterative design process by engaging community stakeholders of different ages and areas in Flagstaff and surrounding areas through interviews, focus group and co-design session. As a result of this work, the team will design COMET (Communities Measure Technology), a platform that promotes community-driven measurement of ICT infrastructure by synthesizing measurement activities with community goals for ICT infrastructure.
  • During Strand III: Deploy and Evaluate COMET, the team will deploy and evaluate the COMET system.

“It’s one thing when individuals in a large area report outages or spotty internet service,” Vigil-Hayes said. “But if we can bring people together to collect the data and keep it collective, that’s a strong statement by the federal government, the FCC, which is trying to subsidize broadband deployment efforts. .It makes us say, hey, you said you spent X million dollars, X billion dollars on rural internet. Why is that anyway? ”

“I think there’s a big part of community advocacy in this project, and I want to help communities work together and collectively advocate for themselves, because in the US, it can be very hard to overcome. network issues — mostly because there are only a few.major providers of mobile and fixed broadband.But I think there is a lot we can do as citizens.We just need to create tools that will empower that kind of action and teach people to use it. ”

Educational plan based on research results

The award will also support the development of a citizen science-oriented curriculum based on the project team’s findings, introducing students to concepts from computer networking, including network measurement, wireless network spectrum allocation and the impact of networking policy. By focusing on framing measurement and network monitoring as a citizen science activity similar to environmental monitoring, Vigil-Hayes hopes to engage a wider computing audience by connecting thinking. in computational and activities that promote the well -being of society.

Vigil-Hayes will also create a problem-based undergraduate course for NAU that focuses on ICT measurement that seeks to engage an interdisciplinary audience in computational thinking and challenges, potentially acting as a segue into undergraduate computer science or informatics programs.

The education plan is also designed to promote and support the computational participation of historically excluded students, particularly Native American students and students from underserved rural communities. Working through the university and building on her past experience as a research faculty, Vigil-Hayes actively recruits and teaches undergraduate and graduate students from minority groups without representation as part of her group. in research.

About Northern Arizona University

Founded in 1899, Northern Arizona University is an institution of higher learning that provides unique educational opportunities and outcomes in Arizona and beyond. NAU delivers a student -centered experience to its nearly 30,000 students in Flagstaff, statewide and online through rigorous academic programs in a supported, inclusive and diverse environment. As a community -engaged opportunity engine, NAU empowers social impact and economic functioning for the students and communities it serves. The university’s long history of educating and collaborating with diverse students and communities throughout Arizona is enhanced by its recent designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). Dedicated, world-renowned faculty and staff help ensure that students achieve academic excellence, experience personal growth, have meaningful research and experiential learning opportunities and are set for personal and professional success. Located on the Colorado Plateau, in one of the highest -ranked college towns in the country, the NAU Flagstaff Mountain Campus is truly a gem of the Southwest.


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