I-CHASS projects benefit Alaska natives, farmers in Bangladesh

12.01.15 -

by Susan Szuch

In an isolated fishing village off the southwest coast of Alaska, an economically- and socially-depressed area is getting some new technology.

Scott Poole, professor of communication, senior research scientist at NCSA, and director of I-CHASS, is the principal investigator on a project by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and I-CHASS. The project brings a fabrication laboratory, or fab lab, to Togiak, Alaska. A fab lab is a small workshop equipped with tools that allow people to produce products digitally.

Many were involved in the project, including the Alaska Federation of Natives, the City of Togiak, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Bristol Bay campus, and the ANCSA Community Development Corporation.

Poole was interested in how Alaska Natives approached and used the technology, considering that they have a very different view of nature, philosophy and the world. While the team from the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab assisted with the installation and provided guidance, the Alaska Natives made the decisions and designed the fab lab so it fit into their community. The Illinois team was interested in how the resultant fab lab compared to the other fab labs around the world to get a sense of the approaches the residents of Togiak have to science and technology.

Unlike in traditional fab labs, the material that people brought in to work with varied greatly says Alan Craig, who is now retired from his positions as associate director for human-computer interaction at I-CHASS and research scientist with NCSA.

“(The Alaskans) were interested in whether the lab could accommodate native materials, like fur or hides. A guy brought in this big abalone shell and asked, ‘Can we use the laser to cut this?’ and we said, ‘Let’s try,’” Craig says. “Someone brought in a set of antlers, and we put that in the laser cutter and we engraved images onto that.”

One of the reasons Togiak was interested in having a fab lab was due to their social problems.

A poor community of less than 1,000 people and accessible only by boat or airplane, Togiak faces significant challenges. Employment opportunities are extremely limited. Drug and alcohol abuse is common and often linked to injuries or death and the suicide rate is alarmingly high. The fab lab would offer a creative outlet for residents in a community with limited activities and opportunities.

The fab lab would not only help with STEM learning, but would also allow the citizens to use it for art industry, like the embroidery that native women create, or to fix and resell snowmobiles.

“It would be ways to kind of keep industry going,” Poole says. “It’s an interesting thing because tribes have a pretty good deal of development money they can invest back in the villages, and if this proves to be something that could spark industry, they could have the money from their development corporation to buy serious machining tools.”

One challenge that came up was to win the support of the village elders for the project, seeing as many American Indian cultures look to elders for wisdom.

“The kids just love it, of course, because it’s computers and they can play with it and make little toys on it but the real impacts come from the older people in the community using it,” Poole says.

Technology applications in Bangladesh

A large part of what Poole does is work with how informational technology gets used; the fab lab will study how new computational technologies can be used in practical situations.

This extends to his second project, supported by the Modernizing and Extension Advisory Services program in the College of Agriculture (ACES), whose goal it to upgrade services provided to small farmers in developing countries through information technology.

The I-CHASS project is evaluating the use of cell phone apps to provide information to small farmers in Bangladesh. The apps give farmers the ability to enter a crop disease or type of seed and get instantaneous advice without having to travel to the extension services. There are also technical consultants who go out in the field who help people learn how to use the apps. I-CHASS is “evaluating and studying the use of the apps” through conducting surveys and evaluating how useful the farmers think the apps are.

“In the third world, they don’t have landlines, so they’re ahead of us in mobile in a lot of those ways in those countries, so they build it out,” Poole says. “And the idea here would be that the farmer in the field might be very distant—it’s not that far in miles, but it’s a long way in terms of travel time—from the extension services and not really have time to go and consult.”

Another advantage of apps like these is that they have the potential to empower farmers. For example, an app that gives them access to crop prices in different towns can help farmers know if the people who control the distribution route are taking advantage of them.

“Estimates are as much as 50 percent of the food that’s produced is wasted because they can’t get it to market,” Poole says. “(Farmers) are often are taken advantage of by middle people, who basically control the routes by which they can distribute their products, so they don’t get paid much.”

The app assists them in getting advice on growing more crops, find what the current prices are for their crops, and possibly even sell food directly, allowing farmers to make more money, which can benefit those who are very, very poor.

“We always say we have a huge disparity of wealth in this country, but it’s nothing compared to Bangladesh, where they have 90 percent of the people living on subsistence, a few dollars a day, and maybe 10 percent of the people living reasonable, middle class lives and a few really rich people,” Poole says. “(The app) has huge potential to improve people’s lives.”

The app also benefits those who work in extension offices—since farmers are able to ask for knowledge and get questions answered through the app, it “helps (extension agents) really reduce their burden of administration, so they can pay more attention to their clients directly,” according to Poole.