e-Community experiment examines the promise of being connected

University Park, Pa. — A festival lover is deep in a crowd enjoying a summertime arts festival — artisans to the right , pottery displays to the left, food vendors behind and a blues band on stage ahead. The festival goer would love to find that perfect photo of spring flowers for her living room wall. But, where to look?

Solution: Pull out the wireless smart phone.

An experiment testing the feasibility of just such a wireless system as well as an examination of ways to boost peoples’ involvement in the future of their town, strategies for warning citizens of large-scale emergencies, and ways to get out the vote are all being studied by Penn State researchers in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) under the direction of Jack Carroll, director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction.

These concepts and others were put forth comprehensively by Carroll and co-author Mary Beth Rosson, professor of information sciences and technology, as “Wireless State College” in a recent paper titled, “Theorizing Mobility in Community Networks” in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies.

In the paper, Carroll, holder of the Edward Frymoyer faculty chair of information sciences and technology, and Rosson, lay out three ways in which networked wireless devices could impact State College, Pa., the college town that is home to Penn State’s University Park campus:

  • Community engagement: Using technology to help residents become more active in planning for the development of their streets, neighborhoods and civic projects;
     
  •  Local heritage: Making local history and culture come to life with imagery, stories and information about community places wirelessly available to a visitor strolling through those locations; and
     
  •  Crisis management: Helping authorities direct citizens to safety in the event of a major fire or other emergency.

Carroll has been actively working with community leaders and business people in State College to explore the potential for transforming these ideas into reality.

Current desktop systems can leave the user with the sense that he or she is isolated, "out of place and out of time." But, wireless networks might add new dimensions of "here and now" physicality to Internet services and applications, enhancing community engagement.

"When you’re out in the community with a mobile device, you can relate to physical and social contexts more directly," Carroll said. "You're immersed."

And being immersed and connected opens the way for action in real time. Hear a call for volunteers for a community activity around the corner; people can join in right away when help is needed. They can learn about an on-site meeting to discuss the development of a new park; people can take part or add their thoughts to an online discussion about it.

Community networks have been a fact of life since the activist days of the 1970s in places like Berkeley, Calif. Local activism has evolved over the ensuing decades with change driven in part by the development of technology — from the days of mimeographed fliers and phone "trees" to wireless and Web-based communication.

From a technological standpoint, Wireless State College may not be that far away. The WiFi network is there, along with the Web-based tools and the software. Smart phones are no longer a technologist’s dream, Carroll pointed out; they’re getting into the hands of more and more people.

"Ubiquity is what's missing," he said, adding that he felt within the next two years a critical mass of users would develop making a mobile e-community both needed and wanted.

"I think it will be realized," Carroll said. "The infrastructure will be there in two years; it's mostly there now."

With the wireless systems in place, the users are sure to follow.

"Just look at cell phone penetration and extrapolate to smart phones," he went on. "You can predict that people will be able to engage in those interactions within two years, which is the time to recycle phone contracts."

In the interim, work by Carroll and his colleagues is moving ahead.

Other research may yield the electronic systems needed to show an arts festival goer the way to the photos alluded to earlier, along with a review of the photographer’s work from a previous patron.

This past summer, a team led by Craig Ganoe, senior research associate with the Center for Human-Computer Interaction, handed out iPodTouch devices and Samsung UMPCs (ultra-mobile PCs), instructing test subjects to enjoy the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College and share their experiences through blogs, wikis and digital photos. Connected to a wireless network, the handhelds could access a Web-based festival map and other information.

"It gave us an opportunity to see how people would use the site; it allowed us to see how people might share information," said Ganoe, adding that some users talked with the artists and shared what they learned through the Web site.

"It showed that there's definitely a way for people to contribute about the things like the arts festival and other activities that go on in State College on an annual basis," he said.

A paper detailing the arts festival project is currently being finalized.

Capitalizing on lessons learned from this pilot project, a more advanced version of the system is already planned for State College’s upcoming First Night celebration Dec. 31- Jan.1.

"We've learned how to make it even better as far as people being able to find out what’s going on around them, being able to give them directions to things," according to Ganoe. "We’ll be able to do a better job of that the next time around."

The work by Carroll, Rosson, Ganoe and their rest of their team is supported by grants from the Intel Corporation and the Knight Foundation.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009