Human Centered Infrastructure

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dharma Dailey, Master's student in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE), participated in a response panel at the conference "Defining and Measuring Meaningful Broadband Adoption" on April 11, 2012, in Washington, DC. This conference was an opportunity to promote user research and human-centered methods to telecommunications policy analysts and decision makers who are involved in building infrastructure to under-served locations and under-served populations. Upon returning from her conference, Dailey wrote about the efforts to improve broadband infrastructure and adoption.

When President Obama took office in January 2009, only two-thirds of Americans had a high-speed internet connection at home. As part of the Stimulus Act act a month later Congress tasked two federal agencies—the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Rural Utitilies Service (RUS)—with handing out grants of 7.2 billion dollars to "shovel ready" projects to build better Internet to the many areas in the country where its absent.

While the lion's share of the funding went to building physical infrastructure, a portion was set aside to support wider adoption of broadband by funding training and subsidies for underserved populations. In September of 2013, NTIA and RUS will report back to Congress on what’s been achieved by these projects. As the grantees begin the final stages of their work, a handful of academics, project evaluators and NTIA staff gathered at the New America Foundation to review recent research on the social and economic impact of broadband adoption on underserved communities and populations.

We all know that communications technologies have a social and economic impact. But many open questions remain about how to use information and communication technologies (ICT) to create specific outcomes for the underserved. NTIA's grant program allowed its 56 grantees room to try a variety of approaches to achieve their aims. It’s a rich experiment on how to reach underserved areas and underserved populations in the United States. While Congress expects a report on the short-term macroeconomic impact of Stimulus dollars, every insight that we can feed back to the field from these projects is a treasure. User research as practiced in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) has a role to play in uncovering these insights.