Research

Summary of Scholarly Accomplishments and Contributions

I am a scholar of “Public Informatics”. I coined this phrase to situate my work at the intersection of people, information, and technology in a public setting. I am proud of the ways that my work has helped to define and build this new focus area in socio-technical science. Specifically, my research in Public Informatics has achieved four noteworthy goals. First, I have defined a context for a socio-technical investigation of public institutions that exists within the overlapping fields of Sociology, Science and Technology Studies, and Telecommunications. Second, I have contributed to the understanding of the patterns, behaviors and technology-related coordination barriers among public institutions. Third, my work has addressed critical social problems facing the world today, such as humanitarian relief, emergency response, and social and economic development and social exclusion. Fourth, my work has contributed directly to the policy-making bodies of the United Nations, the Obama Administration and the largest international relief and development organizations globally.

Scholarship of Research and Creative Accomplishments

As a scholar of Public Informatics, I think of myself as a Public Informatician, but my training and approach to research is that of a Sociologist of Technology. In my work, Sociology is the study of human social behavior in the collective aspect, focusing on patterns of human social action in groups, organizations, institutions and societies. In this perspective I often see the world as a set of stratified layers and classes, as oppositional and conflicted, and I am comfortable with the role of academic-activist and public agent. Most importantly, my sociological perspective leads me to gather data in naturalistic settings directly from human beings. I see myself as an academic with expertise in social research methods and social theory and I apply my expertise to the study of information and communication technologies (ICT) and their context of development, implementation and use. Technologies are created, adopted, and used by groups, organizations, institutions and societies in patterned behavior, which has implications for both the institution and the technology. Technologies are mediated via stratified groups and often are imbued with power beyond their function. Empirical data is gathered directly from the designers, developers, users and consumers of technologies in the settings of action.

My Public Informatics scholarship focuses on problems faced by public and non-profit institutions and their work toward a public good. The institutions that concern me are those that serve our most basic needs for post-disaster and emergency aid, safety and security, economic and social development, and telecommunications. I am most attracted to problems that are endemic to the public sphere: the lack of and management of scarce resources, sharing materials and information; and, increasingly the need to play competitively alongside private industry. ICTs play a role in both the creation of these problems and in potential solutions.

I am drawn to understanding the problems facing public institutions and technology for three reasons. First, the problems are important to solve, because they are critical to the safety, development and wellbeing of society. Second, public institutions have a strong need for assistance; they encounter many of the same issues and problems as private industry but without the support, knowledge and funding to solve them. Third, public institution’s ICT problems are messy in that they involve multiple, heterogeneous and competing stakeholders, goals and particular computing elements.

While I have engaged in several different research efforts, they all have three things in common. (1) Each is concerned with the intersection between people¹s motivations and behaviors and the roles and uses of information and the roles and uses of ICT. (2) Each is concerned with coordination and collaboration between institutions through the uses of ICT. (3) Each is concerned with the creation of a public good. The blending of these can be viewed through three theme areas that I discuss below.

Theme 1: Public Policy and Broadband Internet for the Public Good
In this research I have focused on heterogeneous public institutions collaborating to provide people with broadband access to the Internet as a basic public good. My research has found that traditional private telecom providers in the U.S. have failed to meet the communication needs of the public and its major institutions. In a growing number of cases, public entities have re-styled themselves as telecom providers to address the gaps in service. However, my research has shown that these public entities have fundamentally different purposes than private entities offering similar services. Because of this work I advocate for a strong federal level policy, which encourages municipalities to participate in the provision of broadband Internet services. In this area of research I have published four articles and my work has appeared at eleven conferences. In this area I am most proud of my work at the Telecommunication Policy Research Conference, the premiere conference in this area, which I have attended for five years and for my work which appeared in “…and Communications for all: A Policy Agenda for the New Administration.” This book was presented to the Obama administration transition team in November 2008, just after the election. It was officially published in January 2009 and its launch appeared in CSPAN.

Theme 2: Technical, Public and Institutional Collaboration for Disaster
Relief and Development

In this area of research I have focused on large, international humanitarian relief and development organizations engaged in a process of coordinating ICT, information management and information sharing. My early findings have identified unique network structures and barriers that exist in this form of technical coordination in this sector at various levels of participating organizations. It is in these collaboration efforts that I find global collaboration processes, projects and challenges that are both unique in their context and setting and similar to other ICT-based collaboration efforts more universally. Within this context, information systems collaboration is itself a goal, but it also frequently serves a supporting role in fostering collaboration in other units by promoting enhanced information sharing. This research was funded both through the National Science Foundation and from the Department of Defense Office of Naval Research. I have published three articles and twelve conference papers from this research. Most importantly, this work has been influential in the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and their Global Symposium (2002) and Global Symposium +5 (2007), two efforts aimed at creating principles and best practices for Humanitarian Information Managers worldwide.

Theme 3: Building Social Theory for the Socio-Technical in Public
Institutions

In this area of research I have focused again on heterogeneous institutions engaged in sharing technological devices or tools in both an emergency setting and a scientific collaboratory setting. Public Informatics is built upon a social informatics approach. Social informatics research takes a web or ensemble view of ICT where ICT design and use is embedded in, shapes, and is shaped by social context; the technological artifacts and the social context are inseparable. I have extended this theory in two areas, that of invisible work and articulation around first responders and in virtual scientific collaboratories. My current research here examines the collection of institutions that seek to collaborate around a very rare shared scientific tool. The institutional stakeholders form a loose virtual organization around a High Resolution Computed Tomography (HRCT) scanner, one of three such scanners worldwide. These projects were funded through Boston University, the Justice Network of Pennsylvania, Lucent Technologies and in the second case through the National Science Foundation. Four articles have come out of the initial work with emergency responders; the scientific collaboratory work is in its first year and will lead to further publications in the future.