Jacob Thebault-Spieker awarded Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant to explore impacts of broadband in rural communities

iSchool Assistant Professor Jacob Thebault-Spieker

Assistant Professor Jacob Thebault-Spieker has received a Wisconsin Idea Collaboration (WIC) Grant to research the benefits of high-speed internet access in communities across the state. Thebault-Spieker will collaborate with Steven Deller, professor and community economic development extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, on the interdisciplinary project, entitled “Towards Understanding the Impacts of Broadband on Wisconsin’s Digital Footprint”.

WIC Grants are funded by the UW–Madison Division of Extension and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. According to Karl Martin, dean and director of Extension, WIC Grants offer “a way to spur new connections, new findings and new solutions for communities all over Wisconsin.”

What will the project investigate?

The research is taking place as the state government pushes to expand broadband access in Wisconsin using funds from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The goal of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission is for 97% of Wisconsin homes and businesses to have high-speed internet access by 2025; as of February 2024, about 80% of these locations had full high-speed access, according to the commission. Amid this rapid planned broadband rollout, researchers like Thebault-Spieker and Deller will investigate the effects on individual communities.

“This project is really interested in the potential benefits to communities that come out of the existence of broadband,” Thebault-Spieker said. “My role in this project is thinking about online digital footprints that come about in [Wisconsin] communities,” he added. (His previous research has focused on information gaps in rural communities and the dynamics of human-computer interaction in various contexts.)

A community’s digital footprint, Thebault-Spieker explained, can be defined as “the amount of information” available about a place online, especially on platforms like Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap, which rely on contributions from everyday people and have large user bases. Thebault-Spieker’s prior research has found rural residents are less likely to contribute to these participatory platforms than their urban peers, but he wonders if a lack of internet access is the only reason.

“By default, does having access to broadband mean that people are going to be contributing to sites like Wikipedia? he asked.

“We’re trying to think through what else communities might need, beyond just access, to be able to represent themselves well online.”

Jacob Thebault-Spieker

The first phase of the project will involve a retrospective analysis of communities who have recently rolled out or expanded broadband access. Thebault-Spieker will work with Deller and colleagues to examine and assess how previous rollouts have affected the digital footprints of those communities. Meanwhile, Deller will lead efforts to work directly with Extension to determine and support community needs around internet access and use, using surveys and other on-the-ground methods. “I’m excited to collaborate with Extension and their experts in community engagement,” Thebault-Spieker said.

Why is this work important?

Thebault-Spieker said that just as certain groups or individuals in society can be marginalized or disadvantaged, communities can, too. And some communities, including in Wisconsin, are at risk of serious underrepresentation on digital platforms. He said the WIC Grant will lay the groundwork for future efforts to “make sure that the kinds of intelligent technologies that now exist serve Wisconsin well.” He added, “And that means all of Wisconsin. It means rural communities. It means tribal communities. It means everybody.”

He also noted the “downstream consequences” of lacking a digital footprint, including the possibility that communities are overlooked or omitted by emerging artificial intelligence (AI) mapping technologies used by apps like Google Maps. Additionally, the training data for generative AI tools like ChatGPT relies heavily on Wikipedia, and Thebault-Spieker estimated that overall, “user-generated content is about 40% of the training data”, according to prior analysis of OpenAI’s GPT-3.5. If rural communities are not represented in such content, then, he said, “AI tools today are not going to serve rural communities well.”

On the flip side, though, Thebault-Spieker can also envision a future in which rural communities are well-represented in AI training data. For instance, he imagined, ChatGPT’s reply to a query about summer events to attend in Wisconsin could include not just Milwaukee’s Summerfest but also “the little folk festival that happens every summer in Shawano, Wisconsin, that you might not otherwise hear about unless you’re a local.”

The Wisconsin Idea 2.0

Working with communities across the state to investigate and maximize the benefits of broadband access is a clear example of the Wisconsin Idea, serving citizens of the state well beyond the UW–Madison campus. At the same time, Thebault-Spieker said, traditional conceptions of the Wisconsin Idea have not focused heavily on the digital realm. “Our work is an expansion of what most people think the Wisconsin Idea means,” he said. “This is what the Wisconsin Idea looks like in the digital online community space.”

With access to the internet “skewed more toward urban, wealthy places,” Thebault-Spieker said, it is critical to “make sure that Wisconsin is well served by the technological tools that exist today.” The WIC Grant led by Thebault-Spieker and Deller offers an innovative example of this expansive version of the Wisconsin Idea.

For a complete list of 2024 Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant awardees, read this article.

For more information about Assistant Professor Jacob Thebault-Spieker’s work, visit his website.