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Syracuse University School of Information Studies students study technology needs of rural county
Syracuse University School of Information Studies students study technology needs of rural countyMarch 27, 2001Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
Twice daily, as some 150 cows meander through the Monanfran Farms milking parlor, a computer tracks the amount of milk each cow gives and compares it with her daily average. The computer also tracks the cow’s feeding regimen, reproductive cycle and pedigree. The farm, owned by Amy and Maurice Kelsey, is located outside of Canastota, N.Y., in rural Madison County–a 45-minute drive from Syracuse. The Kelseys are the third generation to run the family farm, which was founded in 1919 by Maurice’s grandfather. Someday, the Kelseys would like to implement a computer system that would automatically transmit data about the herd to Dairy One (formerly the Dairy Herd Improvement Association), located at Cornell University. The system would increase the efficiency of their herd management operations. Farther south, in the rural hamlet of Eaton, a once thriving industrial area, town historian Mary Messere spends the early hours of the morning maintaining the town’s Web site (http://www.ouroldetowne.com) in order to avoid getting cut off from her dial-up Internet connection, which is unreliable during business and early evening hours. The hamlet has cable television, but the infrastructure is so old that broadband cable modems are out of the question. And folks living outside of the hamlet don’t have access to cable television. In nearby Hamilton, home to Colgate University, an industrial park is in the fledgling stages of development. Vantine Studios (http://www.vantine.com), a high-tech photography company that does business all over the United States, is one of the charter tenants of Mid York Business Air Park, which borders the Hamilton Airport. The company is transforming to a fully digital business plan, which will eventually require access to a lot of bandwidth.
As the Information Age and all its trappings sweep across the country–palm pilots, cell phones, satellite uplinks and wireless technologies–many upstate New York communities are located in digital black holes where cost-effective, high-speed broadband technology infrastructure has yet to see the light of day. However, an energetic group of faculty, staff and students from Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies hopes to find ways to help Madison County close its digital divide and open doors to opportunities that will revitalize the county’s economic and social development. The project is Madison County Unplugged. The name was coined by SU alumnus Peter L. Cann G’79, G’95, executive director of the Madison County Industrial Development Agency, who launched the project with Craig Watters, assistant dean, development and external affairs in the School of Information Studies. The two met about a year ago while working out at a gym. Their casual conversations about connectivity and economic development led to a series of meetings with county officials, and the project was born. “The once thriving hamlets of Madison County were left behind with the transition from the Agricultural Age into the Industrial Age,” says Cann. “In the unfolding Information Age, connectivity will enable the hamlets to thrive again. To be sustainable, communities need recreation, grocery stores, a post office, churches and jobs. Our hamlets have all of these things, except for the jobs. With the Internet, people can return to these beautiful places and work where they live.” The Madison County Unplugged project group, which includes 17 students from the School of Information Studies, is working with county officials and members of the business and nonprofit communities on a comprehensive analysis of the county’s technology needs and existing infrastructure. The group also plans to research how similar communities across the country have increased access to technology to promote economic development. The students began the first phase of the project in January. Watters expects the project to continue into next year with other students who will pick up where the current group leaves off. The students have the option to receive course credit for the project either as an internship or independent study. “The project is a terrific learning opportunity for students,” Watters says. “They are learning how to be consultants, how to work in teams and with people from diverse backgrounds, and how to conduct research on a real-world project, working through the pitfalls and obstacles inherent to the process.” The students began their work with a tour of Madison County, which included stops at the Kelseys’ farm; Colgate University; the the SUNY College at Morrisville (named the most wired college in the nation by Yahoo!); and the hamlet of Eaton. They also met with county officials in Wampsville, the county seat. There, the students learned that some of the county’s technology needs were as simple as being able to communicate via cell phone with parole officers, public health nurses and health department inspectors working in the field. “We’re trying to use wireless communication with our staff in the field, but there are many areas of dead space where the cell phones simply don’t work,” says Dave Dorrance, county director of public health. He says much of the data health inspectors collect could be transmitted electronically from the field to the office, and from the office to the state Department of Health in Albany, but the technology to make it happen does not exist in the county. “We can’t even transmit data from our satellite office in Oneida to Wampsville,” he says. Public health nurses are beginning to be equipped with laptop computers, Dorrance says. The real potential for laptop computers lies in being able to transmit patient data electronically between nurses in the field and the client’s doctor or hospital. However, many clients don’t have telephones. “This is rural America,” Dorrance says. “Laptop computers are of limited use. The nurses enter their data into the computer, but then they have to travel somewhere else to transmit the information.” Students also learned that the county’s 911 system is in need of a $6 million overhaul. The system, which was upgraded in 1997, relies on three towers that transmit at 2 ghz. New Federal Communications Commission regulations require the county to install 10 towers that transmit at 6 ghz. Under the current system, 911 dispatchers cannot directly communicate with emergency personnel in fringe areas of the county. To get messages through, dispatchers call their counterparts in the next county who then relay the message to the emergency personnel, who carry two radios, each linked to a different 911 facility. The students have attacked the project from a variety of angles. Some are working with service providers and the New York State Public Service Commission to determine what kind of infrastructure is available and where it is available–no easy task since many service providers consider the information proprietary. Others are doing market research to look at successful projects dealing with connectivity issues in New York state and across the country. A third group of students is conducting surveys and focus groups of a cross section of stakeholders in the county–hospitals, libraries, government agencies, and businesses and community organizations. After the data are compiled and analyzed, the students will look at possible solutions to problems and the costs involved, and possible funding sources. They are being guided in their work by Murali Venkatesh, associate professor and director of the Community and Information Technology Institute (CITI) in the School of Information Studies. CITI has been an instrumental player in the development of the Syracuse MetroNet, an advanced, multimedia telecommunications network in the Central New York region. Three years ago, the MetroNet received a $3.8 million grant from the New York State Diffusion Fund Committee to develop the project. “The issue is not always the latest and greatest technology,” Venkatesh says. “The issue is what technology is appropriate. You can customize the technology to meet the customer’s needs. Sometimes that means helping people understand what is possible, creating a demand for services, and identifying markets for service providers through education and demonstrations of the technology.” “Broadband technology changes everything,” Venkatesh says. “It opens up new possibilities in the delivery of services and information. You need to help people create a vision and see the possibilities.”