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WORKSHOP REPORT

National Workshop on Developing a Research Agenda for Connected Rural Communities (CRC17)

September 7 - 8, 2017 | Charlottesvllie, Virginia USA

  • John A. Stankovic, PhD
  • Karen S. Rheuba,nMD
  • Tho H. Nguyen, PhD

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The University of Virginia (UVA) convened a national workshop on September 7-8th, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia to examine challenges and opportunities for high-impact technology research to advance quality of life in small, remote, and rural communities. With support from the National Science Foundation (award #1741668), UVA organized a successful meeting of approximately 90 participants representing diverse academic disciplines, industry sectors, government agencies, and community organizations. Participants comprised researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and members of the community. The workshop was organized to include presentations from domain experts as well as engage all participants in detailed discussions to explore practical challenges, share successful approaches, and identify opportunities where new research can make an impact. Over two days, workshop attendees participated in meaningful conversations that exposed new insights and converged on key recommendations for a successful research agenda toward smart and connected rural communities.

Small, remote, and rural communities are an important component of the nation's identity, economy, and global competitiveness; yet, many of these communities are often unable to take full advantage of services and resources offered through communications, networking, and technology advances. These under-connected communities can exist within a large urban center or located in remote areas. Due to the varying differences in resources, needs, and interests, no one solution is expected to scale across all communities. Instead, a playbook approach is suggested where cases of successes and failures can be shared, and communities can choose to adopt solutions or best practices that meet their needs.

The lack of infrastructure, especially for communication and networking, is a front and center issue in under-connected rural communities. Researchers are encouraged to pursue practical as well as bold and creative technical approaches to deliver resources and services instead of waiting for advanced infrastructure to be available. Infrastructure development must also couple with capacity building programs to enable communities to take advantage of the newly available services and resources. Quality of service (e.g., accessibility, performance, and cost) must be considered as research drivers and not an afterthought in the deployment phase.

Community culture, values, and identity are the foundation upon which a community can sustain and grow. New socio-technical metrics must be developed to assess the overall community wellbeing and impact of R&D efforts. Capacity building (e.g., orienting a community toward entrepreneurship or developing a new workforce) begins with changing the community's attitude toward changes and adopting new solutions. Community core competencies are important considerations for successful programs. A community-based participatory research (CBPR) model should be considered by technical researchers to engage community input from identification through to the solution deployment stages.

Critical public services in under-connected communities such as emergency response and public safety are challenged by the lack of infrastructure and further burdened by the economies-of-scale bottleneck. For example, advanced data analytics and public outreach are more difficult due to the limited technology, expertise, or simply enough critical mass to justify investment. On the other hand, there are several advantages afforded by rural settings that support service deployment, including low-cost right-of-way, available wireless bandwidth, small-grouped community, and community cohesion. Researchers are encouraged to leverage these advantages in designing new public service solutions. A key priority identified for public services is to lower the barrier-of-access for community managers and community members. This includes: visualization to support understanding and awareness, automated systems to reduce the need for advanced expertise, and leveraging existing technology services such as social media and crowd-sourcing platforms.

Access to quality healthcare is a critical factor in advancing quality of life in under-connected communities. Currently, availability and quality of healthcare services vary significantly due to limited resources, lack of infrastructure, and policy not responsive to support new programs. Telehealth services are recognized as a successful model for delivering care. Telehealth is also an area ripe for technology collaborations. Assessing community health and health outcomes to measure program effectiveness is also a major hurdle ready for technology innovations. Technical researchers are encouraged to work with social scientists and healthcare providers to identify challenges as well as assessing the impact of intervention programs - including potential unintended consequences (e.g., drone drug delivery). Public health projects are often well-setup for collaborations with other domains such as education, emergency response, and transportation. Data protection is a priority for health intervention efforts. Technology development can also provide more effective methods of collecting, storing, and analyzing health data securely - for example, an end-to-end secured system from wearable and edge devices to a security-compliant cyber infrastructure can engage diverse technology, actors, and enable collaborative research across disciplines.

In addition to addressing the issues summarized above, the following report details many specific technical and social research questions and their dependencies on each other. These questions must be solved to avoid having rural and depressed areas of major cities being left out of the smart city revolution. In spite of many specific research questions being identified, two overarching questions proved difficult for which to articulate specific answers. These questions are: (i) What current smart city technology can or cannot be easily moved to rural communities, and why, and (ii) what totally new technology is required precisely because of the cultural, social, economic and other properties of rural areas?
A few examples of key research challenges are:

  • How to enable access to information in the rural community that is easy to use and highly robust?
  • How to support using information technology and services even when people or systems become disconnected from the Internet?
  • How to create affordable maintenance and use solutions?
  • How to make information produced by rural communities an asset?
  • How can we take advantage of data science to bring opportunities to communities?
  • How do we scale what worked in smart cities into rural environments?
  • How do we design and implement better workflow to handle, and disseminate data in acute emergency systems (e.g., active shooter at school) to balance timely access to relevant data and preventing mass hysteria?
  • How do we leverage the latest in material technology and integration with the local environment to design sensors and systems that are minimally invasive?
  • How can we improve reliability of ad-hoc communication channels (e.g., social media, shortwave radios) for emergency communication and coordination?
  • How do we ensure security of these systems and integrate into patient electronic records?

Overall, the community joined in a strong call to action for the federal government to create and implement programs and policies specifically targeted at serving the under-connected population. If not done, there is a great risk at leaving rural communities further and further behind the technological revolution and its benefits. Any research agenda on this topic must engage both technologists and community people and organizations. The agenda should include underlying research that spans application domains as well as dealing with specific issues that arise in particular domains such as transportation, education, healthcare, work force development, and emergency and safety services. A research agenda should also leverage current research being conducted on smart cities.

In the following sections, we share detailed notes of discussions as well as specific research questions arising from community consensus. At the end, we also include related and relevant material from government and community organizations further illuminating the challenges and opportunities in advancing quality of life for under-connected communities.

See the attached PDF for full report.

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