Doctoral student lives on California Indian reservation to study emergent tech

Jennifer Cifelli
July 05, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This summer, Rich Caneba will leave behind some modern conveniences – and a steadfast digital connection to the outside world – to conduct research in some of the most remote areas in Southern California.

Caneba, a doctoral student in Penn State's College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), is spending his summer conducting field work and embedded research on the Pala Band of Mission Indians reservation, a 12,273-acre swath of land north of San Diego. There, he is utilizing his diverse expertise to bridge the gap between technology and social issues that have plagued native populations who live in rural reservations throughout the country, specifically the almost 1,000 members of the Pala tribe who inhabit the reservation.

According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 68 percent of Americans living on rural tribal lands currently lack access to broadband – a number that lowers only slightly, to 41 percent, in more centralized and developed tribal areas. This lack of coverage is often a factor when discussing why native populations are among the most disadvantaged in America, and highlights the impact that the digital divide has on native communities living in such remote settings.

“What we’ll do is examine the way technology is interacting within the culture that is present, observe the way that actors behave within this relationship, and hopefully ascertain how technology is affecting populations that are ignored and underserved,” said Caneba about his research expectations.

“There are social and cultural effects to look at, as well as individual psychological effects, but really it’s about examining relationships between technology and underserved or, in some sense, forgotten populations," he added.

Caneba earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University of Michigan and a graduate degree in cognitive science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York. He began his doctoral studies at RPI as an artificial intelligence researcher working on developing natural language understanding systems before coming to IST, where he was eager to assist Carleen Maitland, associate professor of IST, with her research.

Maitland’s research examines the institutional context of humanitarian organizations and its implications for access to and use of information and communication technologies, most notably in developing and at-risk communities. With his unique educational background in humanitarian and philosophical thought paired with technological and entrepreneurial expertise, Caneba believes he is perfectly suited to advance Maitland's efforts.

According to Caneba, Maitland’s work to establish stakeholder relationships and identify gatekeepers is integral to embedded research such as his own.

“Embedded research requires representatives and advocates on the ground, and Dr. Maitland has built these relationships already,” Caneba said. “Her connections and relationships have made my field study feasible.”

Caneba is working closely with the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association (SCTCA), a multi-service non-profit whose primary mission is to serve the health, welfare, educational, cultural and economic needs of its tribal members throughout the San Diego area. To address the lack of internet access and increase wireless broadband service to the most remote areas of the reservation, the SCTCA established Tribal Digital Village (TDV) to assist in furthering its mission through the use of technology. 

In addition to working closely in the field with TDV to bring broadband access to homes, tribal administrative buildings, law enforcement, libraries and schools, Caneba is conducting field interviews with members of the communities and businesses that are affected. He wants to understand how TDV is mediating the complex relationship of customer service providers while also serving as the vendor – ascertaining the needs of the community and the terrain of the land, and then translating that information to the technicians in the field who deploy the hardware and firmware that is right for the terrain. 

Caneba noted that he is excited to meet people and observe the way technology is being translated and co-created, and how innovation occurs organically to meet the needs of the user base. But as he joins the technician teams in the field, doing infrastructure development and seeing the day-to-day requirements that make this abstract potential of technology into something real, Caneba’s mind is full of questions about what he will find.

How is technology translated? How does innovation occur when these needs are translated?  What role have small internet service providers played in innovation as a result of translation of technology, creation and co-creation of technology?  

“Technology isn’t the be-all and end-all of every problem in our society. Rather, the goal of research is to learn how to apply technology to an issue or know when it’s not going to help or be efficient,” said Caneba. “It’s just as important to know the limitations of technology as it is to know its power and potential for growth.”

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Last Updated September 05, 2017