Examining perceptions of Internet-of-Things devices in Rwandan farming community

Jessica Hallman
November 11, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — This past spring, as part of a three-year program, a cohort of Penn State students participated in an innovative research study to examine the potential for Internet of Things devices on a farming community in Rwanda.

Anita Chen, a doctoral student in informatics; Matt Hancock, a doctoral student in international agriculture; and Allison Kurpiel, a doctoral student in sociology and criminology, collaborated with students at Carnegie Mellon Africa and the University of Rwanda to explore the potential impact of unmanned vehicles at a farm on the outskirts of the city of Kigali.

The goal was to study farm workers and local community members, gathering their perceptions and concerns of advanced technology in a low-resource context. According to Chen, a farm owner had begun to test unmanned ground and aerial drones to maximize operations and improve the consistency and quality of labor. But, he had concerns about how his employees and the surrounding community would perceive them, or otherwise be impacted.

“What we were trying to test was how they perceive drones, especially since most of the individuals in the community don’t have cars or smart phones,” she said. “How do you explain a drone to someone who has never seen one before?”

Chen explained that farm workers could be concerned that the unmanned vehicles could replace their positions, or community members might have privacy concerns when seeing aerial drones.

To introduce the local community to the concept of drones, the research team built a prototype of a ground vehicle that individuals could see and feel.

“If a community member hasn’t seen a drone before, and the first time is through a video, it’s hard for them to judge weight and scale and size,” explained Chen. “In their imagination, the drone could be the size of a bus. That would elicit a different sense of concern.”

Unmanned vehicle

Penn State doctoral students collaborated with students at Carnegie Mellon Africa and the University of Rwanda to explore the potential impact of unmanned vehicles, such as this one, at a farm on the outskirts of the city of Kigali, Rwanda.

IMAGE: Provided

After allowing community members to interact with the prototype, the research team showed them a video of the drones in action with an accompanying script dubbed in the local language.

“We structured the video so that it would explain the functionality of what the drones do,” said Chen. “By explaining the functionality, it was potentially easier to connect them to their own personal livelihood.”

Then, the researchers interviewed farm workers and members of the neighboring community to gather their perceptions and concerns. Preliminary results suggest ground and aerial vehicles raise different concerns. Also, differences in concerns expressed by community members versus farm workers suggest that further diffusion of these technologies will require targeted strategies.

The team, which includes Carleen Maitland, associate professor of IST; Ben Hanrahan, assistant professor of IST; and the students at Penn State, Carnegie Mellon Africa and the University of Rwanda, is continuing its analyses at a distance using a variety of online collaborative tools. The findings will inform the ongoing research by the team and its future members, which is likely to involve more directed study of the farm workers with the evolving devices.

As a departure from research conducted in labs, the study affords the opportunity for the team members to give voice to diverse populations likely to be affected by these technologies.

“If you don’t understand how the communities or end users are reacting to technologies, then we can’t control for the negative outcomes,” said Chen. “Often times, the most vulnerable populations are the ones who can’t come to a lab setting or whose perspectives aren’t considered in the design and development.”

This research, as well as additional IoT studies, are slated to continue, with cohorts of students scheduled to travel in the months of May and June in 2020 and 2021. Currently, recruiting for the second cohort of graduate students to research in 2020, is underway. Interested students should contact Carleen Maitland for more information. The project, including all travel expenses and stipends for students, is funded by the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program.

Last Updated January 22, 2020