Media and Information Faculty Impact International Communities Through Research

Media and Information faculty (left to right): Bill Dutton, Susan Wyche, Jennifer Olson, Keith Hampton and Johannes Bauer.

In the past few years, several faculty members in the Department of Media and Information have traveled around the world giving talks, conducting research, shaping international policy and impacting communities. With a focus on information and communication technologies (ICT), these researchers are internationally known experts in their fields and are innovating the way academic research is conducted. 

The Changing World of ICT

Johannes Bauer, department chair and professor of Media and Information, has worked with the World Bank and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for a decade giving talks and conducting research and outreach. His initial international work focused on improving cybersecurity and discovering how emerging ICT technologies could be utilized to achieve the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015, the United Nations set forth 17 goals that several countries adopted, which target the planet, the people and ensuring future prosperity. For Bauer, working directly with communities and organizations is the best strategy for academics who want to make an impact. 

“There’s really a hunger worldwide for individuals who are able to put the pieces together — understanding those technological and social changes and how we can take advantage of those changes,” Bauer said. “Susan Wyche, Jennifer Olson, Bill Dutton, Keith Hampton and myself are in the group of people who have developed research that has helped other people understand that better.” 

Bauer’s next major international project centers around how to help businesses and decision-makers see what it takes to utilize new ICTs, such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data and the Internet of Things (IoT), and build more prosperous societies. Communications infrastructure, educational initiatives and legal and regulatory frameworks are all challenges that developing countries face when considering how they can utilize ICTs. 

“There’s very little systematic data on how these technologies are being used currently, how widely they’re available and what the deficits are for countries,” Bauer said. “I’m involved with [helping] developing countries create indicators and measurements about the availability of big data technology, AI and where are the gaps are.” 

Research and Outreach in Africa

Associate Professor Jennifer Olson has spent many years doing environmental and ICT research and policy work in Africa working closely with national governments and United Nations organizations such as the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility.

Over the last decade, Olson has teamed up with other researchers to study the impacts of climate change on agriculture and ecosystems in Africa through climate, crop and hydrological modeling, statistical analysis and fieldwork in local communities. She has also studied the role of ICTs and other technologies on the economic growth of developing countries. 

Olson works closely with schools and communities to bring internet and computers to rural areas and collects data about the adoption of those technologies through surveys, interviews and focus groups. She has also collaborated with Susan Wyche, an assistant professor of Media and Information, on a project to improve the design of tools and other technologies that Kenyan farmers use. 

“In my academic career, I’ve moved from doing basic research about the intricacies of why big changes happen, to more applied research examining changes at an individual level,” Olson said. “Your research can have such a big impact on the problems at hand if it’s on a critical topic and is designed so that the results will be helpful. The reason I do what I do is just because I want to make a difference in the lives of people and the environment.” 

Along with her collaborations with Olson, Wyche has conducted fieldwork in Africa since 2010, working with residents to understand how individuals interact with ICTs and how technologies can be developed using human-centered design. She collects data by conducting interviews, participant observations and other qualitative data gathering techniques. 

Her work centers on how to incorporate human-centered design in ICTs, while also keeping in mind the people the technology will serve and what infrastructure and systems are currently in place. 

The Reality of Fake News 

In the past year, Bill Dutton, a director and professor of the Quello Center, has traveled to London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Munich, Madrid and Beijing giving talks about his research on a timely topic: are fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers shaping international political opinions? 

The project was taken on by the Quello Center, where Dutton collaborated with Assistant Professor and Assistant Director of the Quello Center Bibi Reisdorf and Laleah Fernandez, a member of the Quello Center research team, as well as faculty members from other institutions.  

In his talks, Dutton presented to audiences a surprising argument: popular theories about the internet and social media perpetuating fake news and distorting public opinion severely underestimate the average internet user. Through 14,000 surveys of internet users in seven different countries, the team found that the average person recognizes when they see wrong or questionable information and they use the internet and search tools to check the accuracy of material. After each presentation, he also met with elected and appointed officials and government regulators to discuss how his research could affect policy decisions regarding these issues. 

“It’s a struggle to get journalists to pay due attention to social research, especially given issues like fake news,” said Dutton. “It’s really important that academia play a stronger role in making sure that public understanding is not simply shaped by popular news and talk shows, and that actually we bring research tools to bear about what we can know about the reality of these issues.” 

The Impact of Social Media on Communication Frameworks

Professor Keith Hampton traveled to Germany and Chili last year to give talks at various conferences with government officials in attendance as well as local universities. He spoke about his research on social media’s influence on individuals’ communication in society.

“Social media makes our relationships more persistent than in the past,” Hampton said. “It means our relationships are less likely to be lost or go dormant and people are more aware of things that were happening in the lives of their social ties, whether it’s family, friends or coworkers.” 

Hampton conducted this research in partnership with the Pew Research Center through surveys of American adults. He found that this awareness contributes to individuals having an overall higher level of social capital and more robust support systems, but it also increases stress, especially with individuals becoming more knowledgeable of their social ties’ political opinions. 

“Sometimes the most powerful impact we can have on the world, in my view at least, is by shaping how people think about the world and how people perceive the opportunities they have with technologies,” Bauer said. “I think all the individuals who were mentioned in one way or another contributed to helping people understand the 21st century and the relevant ICTs in new ways. The changes are very fundamental.”

By Rianna N. Middleton