Change Islands
Small communities struggle with infrastructure ill-suited to rural life. Phoebe Sengers, Cornell University, is improving design processes for better outcomes. (Photo Credit:© David Purchase)

Designed for Rural Living

by Jackie Swift

A small community faced an urgent problem. The inhabitants of Change Islands, an isolated fishing community spanning two small islands off the northeast coast of Newfoundland, were entirely dependent on an old, unreliable ferry to go back and forth to the Newfoundland mainland. The community was often cut off from the mainland for long stretches of time, causing economic and personal hardship for the inhabitants. To address the issue, the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador provided the islanders with a brand new, state-of-the-art ferry.

“The problem, though, is that because the ferry is so high-tech, it can’t be repaired in Change Islands,” says Phoebe J. Sengers, Science and Technology Studies/Information Science at Cornell University. “Almost every time the ferry breaks down, it has to be sent somewhere else to be fixed or the parts need to be shipped from overseas. The new ferry was down for four out of the first six months it was on the route.”

The situation in Change Islands illustrates two aspects of technology and design that especially interest Sengers: the historical and social impact of existing infrastructures and the challenge of designing new infrastructure for improved outcomes.

The ferry situation was especially dire for Change Islands because of a policy decision made by the province. Licenses for fishing and for fish processing are distributed separately, Sengers explains. Authorities saw fishing as one form of employment and fish processing as another, and they wanted to distribute both forms of employment equitably among the communities of the province. As a consequence, however, fish caught near Change Islands can’t be processed there. “You have to ship the fish somewhere else for processing,” Sengers says. “And on an island with harsh weather conditions and only a ferry connection, that’s a problem. You can imagine what happens to the fish when the ferry isn’t working.”

Constraints of Rural Life

Change Islands is just one of many small, rural communities saddled with the effects of infrastructure decisions made by people from larger, more urban environments. “A lot of the engineers, researchers, and planners who develop these things have the best intentions, but they don’t always understand the reality of what it means to live in a rural community or how people’s lives are organized there,” Sengers says. “They often come in with ideas about how to reform rural life, and the infrastructure is going to be part of that reformation.”

“A lot of the engineers, researchers, and planners … have the best intentions, but they don’t always understand the reality of what it means to live in a rural community…”

A large part of the problem stems from a tendency on the part of technology designers to assume that properties of time and place don’t matter, Sengers says. “The assumption [in metropolitan regions] is that you can move quickly from one place to another. If I’m in Manhattan, I can get to both Europe and the West Coast pretty quickly. If I have to go to a doctor in another borough, I can take the subway and get there in half an hour. So, I don’t have to think about place issues in the same way. I can just assume that things can move relatively friction-free from one place to another.”

That assumption doesn’t reflect the reality in a remote location such as an island, where going to a doctor means taking a ferry that may be running late or broken down entirely, Sengers says. Even if the ferry is on time, making the doctor’s appointment may require going to the mainland the night before and staying overnight in order not to arrive too late. Indeed, according to Sengers, the realities of rural communities — the distances separating people and services and the time it takes to traverse those distances — can sometimes resemble the situation faced by people living in developing nations.

“The idea that there are developed countries and less developed countries and [that] the situation is fundamentally different in the two is an overgeneralization,” Sengers says. “There are plenty of communities in the U.S. that are facing similar challenges and problems as communities in developing countries. But we assume those problems aren’t [in developed nations like the United States]. We don’t take them into account when we design various systems, and that just further marginalizes those communities.”

Internet Infrastructure for Farms

Sengers is currently part of an interdisciplinary team that is developing new forms of high-bandwidth farm networking. “A lot of farms have very bad internet service,” she says. “They are often quite remote and may not have much connectivity. At the same time, many farmers and other agricultural stakeholders are interested in developing new ways of applying data analytics to crop production — finding ways to collect and process large volumes of farm data from technology such as moisture sensors and drones that survey crop fields.”

Sengers has joined with Hakim Weatherspoon, Computer Science, and Steven A. Wolf, Natural Resources and Development, to improve the design of a new internet infrastructure specifically for this context. To head off the inaccurate assumptions that designers can sometimes make, the project is fostering collaborations between infrastructure developers and experts in community engagement. In particular, Sengers’s research group will be looking at the social impact of technology on rural communities and how those issues might inform the design of new technology or policies developed for this kind of infrastructure.

“We want to bring the lessons we learned from Change Islands, and also from previous work we did with Icelandic fisheries, to this technology that’s being developed today,” Sengers says.

By observing Weatherspoon and his group as they build the infrastructure, the Sengers group seeks to understand how computer scientists think about the end users of the technology. “What do they think a farm is?” Sengers asks. “How are they thinking about rural communities? How are they imagining this technology will be repaired?”

Building New Worlds

The farm networking project is sparking the kind of interdisciplinary conversations that Sengers finds especially exciting. “I know a lot about fishing communities, but I don’t know so much about agriculture. I’ve learned an enormous amount about that from Steven Wolf, who is working on the economic and policy issues,” she says. “And then Hakim’s group, like mine, is also very interested in exploring the ramifications of taking a social impact approach right from the beginning, when the infrastructure is just being imagined and doesn’t even exist yet.

“This project is an example of how we can start to shape and change new infrastructure as it’s coming in,” she continues. “We’re building new worlds with our technology. I would like to see those worlds be ones that are as positive as possible, where people can flourish.”

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