College of Information Ph.D. candidate leads research team on tackling digital divide

Cary Jim

Cary Jim and teammates win Open Data Challenge from Microsoft

It’s a win Cary Jim and her teammates hope to use to close a digital divide across the country. Jim, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Information Science, partnered with a group of researchers at Purdue University, to win a global contest sponsored by Microsoft. Jim discovered the contest after reading about the digital challenges of online education during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

"Alison (Grant) conducted the benefit-cost analysis and, we worked together on visualizing the benefit-cost ratio for decision making. Other team members supported the initial data collection and data processing," says Jim. She says both she and Grant functioned as Co-Leads for the team.

The Education Open Data Challenge by Microsoft encourages teams to help generate innovative solutions to help close the digital divide in education across the United States. According to the competition description online, ‘the impact of Covid-19 disrupted traditional learning for more than 1.6 billion children worldwide. The burden of school closures was felt disproportionately by students in underserved communities,’ which the competition aims to find solutions.

“We first formed our team after I discovered this opportunity in the Microsoft blog posting. We submitted the initial proposal in Feb and moved forward to the final proposal in April, where we were selected to be on a shortlist for final presentation to the experts,” says Jim. She and her team developed measures and indicators to examine both digital opportunity and economic factors at the county level across the United States to inform decision making. Jim developed the Student Digital Opportunity Measure as well as the creation of the three maps for the experiment. 

According to Jim, digital inequality, or digital divide are social issues that exist before Covid-19. The main barriers commonly discussed are cost, access, usage, and skill levels. “Currently, we lack open data at the local level on digital skills across the country as well as how to determine digital skills. Therefore, we focused on examining the digital divide from the interplay between societal, economical, and physical perspectives,” says Jim.

According to her research, the team found government publications about the digital divide as early as the 1990s when the dial-up connection was the leading form of connectivity. Jim says a lot of the early research was about access which remains an issue in rural parts of our country. Their research identified some fundamentals that didn’t change, where the disadvantaged groups and communities continue to lag behind. It was the team focus on broadband that made the research different.

“However, the digital divide is a moving target because of the changes to technology and digital infrastructure. We utilized terrestrial broadband data for this challenge, and there are other forms of access, especially the increase in mobile technology in recent years. That’s where our solutions come into place. If we are talking about public + private investment, the benefit-cost ratio we developed can help make decisions on how public or private funding can be invested for broadband by regions,” says Jim. Her part of the project was to build the map for the viz. “We strongly suggest content developers and creators to become more nuanced to offer both low and high bandwidth options for e-learning due to the current discrepancies in broadband access and quality,” says Jim.

The win netted the team of researchers a prize of $70,000. The prize money will be donated to nonprofit organizations working to bridge the digital gap for disadvantaged communities.

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