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Ubiquitous Connectivity: Be Careful What You Wish For, Warn Researchers

SAN FRANCISCO, December 1, 2009 – Technophiles and U.S. policymakers have spent decades promising the public that a ubiquitously-networked society would be a people-powered-utopia filled with useful, actionable information. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is the most prominent example of how internet-enabled social networks have fundamentally changed the fabric of our society.

But a thoughtless rush to make the internet pervasive, and to connect with one another socially online could in fact poison the delicately-balanced relationships that exist in the rapidly vanishing concept of the “offline” world, warned several leading thinkers at an annual conference on innovation on Tuesday.

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SAN FRANCISCO, December 1, 2009 – Technophiles and U.S. policymakers have spent decades promising the public that a ubiquitously-networked society would be a people-powered-utopia filled with useful, actionable information. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is the most prominent example of how a group of people capitalized on this vision.

Nevertheless, a thoughtless rush to make the internet pervasive, and to connect with one another socially online could in fact poison the delicately-balanced relationships that exist in the rapidly vanishing concept of the “offline” world, warned several leading thinkers at Supernova, an annual conference on innovation on Tuesday.

“We’re not just communicating with people anymore with Twitter,  we’re communicating with urban space,” argued Nokia’s Adam Greenfield in an afternoon presentation on how internet-connected embedded devices are changing the very notion of what it means to live in cities.

Greenfield gave several examples of how emerging applications and the adoption of internet protocol version 6 (ipv6) would enable everything to be connected through the internet, and how that is starting to erode current, unquestioned assumptions underlying our everyday existence.

“Cities have evolved to support plausible deniabilty and anonymity,” he said, but new applications, such as embedded sensors with facial recognition technology in Manhattan billboards and similar applications in bus shelters in Brisbane, Australia are threatening to change that notion. One experiment placed biotelemetric sensors on people walking around the Mission District in San Francisco, he said.

Sensors would record the participants body temperature as they moved around the district, and the participants would report on what they were feeling at the moments that the sensors recorded a change in temperature.  Greenfield argued that such an application could then with correlated with other information to make inferences about broad groups of people moving around the city.

“In the blink of an eye, you have a new way to read cities and its conditions,” he said. “My contention to you is that this is not what cities are for.”

He gave another example, where a friend in a six-unit condominium built a social network for the building. Everyone signed up. In a year, there was a 75 percent turnover.

“You don’t necessarily want to know that your neighbor is a Scientologist or a latex freak,” he joked. “We live in an abeyance of finding out things about our neighbors.”

And whatever we do “find out” about our friends and acquaintances online is very often misunderstood because the information is interpreted out of context, argued Danah Boyd, who studies the uses of social networks at Microsoft Research.

Since more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, according to the United Nations, the impact of such connectivity is not going to be hypothetical for most people, Greenfield argued.

Both speakers argued that the archiving of personal details online makes the process of personal re-invention near impossible.

Perhaps even more insidious is the sale of the information gathered from such networks, Greenfield said. The cash-strapped Brisbane City Council sold the data gathered about bus-shelter users to a private company under a 10-year contract. Those people have no rights to access that data about themselves.

“That’s an unacceptable condition,” he said.

“[We must] reframe our understanding of public objects: anything in public space with the ability to collect data must provide open access to that data as a matter of principle, and as a matter of  law.”

Greenfield and Boyd did acknowledge that broad access to data can also empower people. Greenfield noted that some residents of Oakland, California have been printing mapped-out crime data and confronting the police about the trends, asking them for more policing in high-crime areas.

“The artifacts that flow downstream from embedded network sensors can support public activism and that is very inspiring,” Greenfield said.

Sarah Lai Stirland is the Director of Digital Community at Broadband.Money. Sarah previously worked with Breakfast Media's CEO, Editor and Publisher Drew Clark at National Journal's Technology Daily. She has covered business, technology, government and civic engagement, finance, and telecommunications and tech policy from New York, Washington and San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Personal Democracy Media's Civic Hall, Wired, Red Herring, and Portfolio.com. She's also a radio and podcast producer, and she's worked at KALW Public radio in San Francisco. She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in the Bay Area.

Public Safety

Lack of People Opting Into Emergency Alerts Poses Problems for Natural Disaster Scenarios

Disaster protocol experts remarked on lessons learned from fire outbreaks in Boulder County, Colorado.

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Photo of Lori Adams of Nokia discussing emergency communications response to Colorado wildfires at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 26, 2022 – A lack of people opting into local emergency alerts poses a severe challenge for public officials during natural disasters, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

The panel remarked on just how significant the number of people not subscribed to emergency alerts is during a panel on disaster preparedness at the annual Mountain Connect conference.

In Boulder, getting emergency alerts is on an opt-in basis, whereas in other areas, it is opt-in by default.

The specific focus of the panel was on lessons learned from the outbreak of fires in Boulder County, Colorado this past December.

Fires presented challenges for providers

Several challenges of managing a response to the fires were recounted.

Blake Nelson, Comcast’s senior director of construction, stated that some of his company’s underground broadband infrastructure buried at a considerable depth was still melted from the heat of the fires to cause service outages for customers. Thomas Tyler, no stranger to disaster response as Louisiana’s deputy director for broadband and connectivity through several hurricane responses, pointed out that it is quite possible local officials may be skilled in responding to one type of disaster such as a hurricane but not another like a tornado.

Screenshot of Blake Nelson, Jon Saunders, Wesley Wright and Thomas Tyler (left to right)

The panel also spoke to the challenges of coordination between essential companies and agencies if people do not have personal relationships with those who work at such entities other than their own.

Successful emergency responses to service outages during disaster serve as models for the future, with Nelson stating the internet provider opened up its wireless hotspots to temporarily increase service access and Tyler saying that standing up Starlink satellite internet access helped bring broadband to Louisiana communities only accessible by bridge or boat during their periods of disaster.

Conversation moderator Lori Adams, senior director of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia, suggested keeping town servers not in municipal buildings but rather off site and Wesley Wright, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, recommended the Federal Communications Commission’s practice of developing strong backup options for monitoring service outages.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group SIIA, formerly known as the Software and Information Industry Association. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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