UNC campuses help rural NC areas become ‘smart and connected communities’

Arcot Rajasekar knows there’s a technology gap between North Carolina’s urban and rural communities.

Rajasekar, who serves as the Frances Carroll McColl Term Professor for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, said rural grade school students in North Carolina might have to travel for miles to find a strong internet signal, or go to a local restaurant or café that has a wi-fi connection, just to do their homework.

That’s why Rajasekar, who also is the director of research and technology for the Data Intensive Cyber Environments Center, is working with researchers and students from UNC System campuses across the state to identify areas that need improved access to technology. The initiative is known as “Smart & Connected Communities.”

“Smart cities has been going on for about 10 years or so, but mostly in Europe,” he said. “It’s only started to catch up in the United States in the last three years. It’s about using the internet, big data, smart technologies and social media to improve the operations of a city and help citizens become more invested in their city with improved living conditions. It will help them have better mobility and transportation and help them with things like energy efficiency, food and air quality monitoring.”

Through funding from UNC’s Research Opportunities Initiative and the National Science Foundation, Rajasekar and his partners from five UNC campuses – UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, East Carolina University, Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte – are in the process of conducting town hall meetings in 11 rural areas of the state to identify what technology issues each is facing.

During the next phase, the campuses that are closest to a particular rural area or have a specialty in a particular field will work with the local governments to improve technology.

The technology improvements are divided into three categories: smart environments, which focuses on using technology to monitor and improve air quality, water usage, disaster relief efforts, food production and energy conservation; smart policies, which focuses on sensor networks and open data platforms; and smart people, which focuses on accessibility, literacy and social media systems.

Rajasekar said the project will unite UNC researchers across many different areas of discipline.

“The researchers come from every discipline – social science, marine science, computer science, environmental science, data science, chemistry, and physics,” he said. “In a sense, it’s convergent research: you’re converging multiple disciplines together to find solutions to common problems.”

UNC students who assist the researchers will also gain valuable field experience as they interact with communities to help improve their technology according to Rajasekar.

Impact on small communities

The initiative aligns with the UNC Board of Governors’ strategic plan, the priorities for which include economic impact and community engagement in North Carolina.

Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones attended the town hall in Kinston and as well as a conference in Chapel Hill to see how her city of 40,000 residents could become a smart and connected community.

“I’d love for Wake Forest to be one of their living labs,” she said. “One of the reasons we don’t seek these kinds of things out is because of the costs involved. But I think we need to look a lot more at new technology. I think it’s a great idea that can benefit a lot of small towns in North Carolina.”

Jones said one technology discussed that she found very relevant is the use of data sensors downtown that can collect information about foot and auto traffic. Such data has a variety of uses, including maintaining greenways and parking. She also would like to see information kiosks and charging stations set up in heavily trafficked parks for the benefit of residents and visitors alike.

Keeping rural areas competitive

One key result from the initiative could be the lessening of the “brain drain” rural areas often experience because they lack the technological infrastructure and job opportunities that large, urban areas often have. By putting rural communities on more equal footing, Rajasekar said, young professionals are less likely to leave rural areas in favor of urban ones.

Rajasekar said the researchers have already gotten a good response to the town hall meetings and focus groups that have been conducted, and that there is a lot of interest among rural city and county leaders to work with the universities.

“We can match them with the right research partners,” he said, adding that the universities also will be working with local industries as partners in the project.

The result will be “living labs,” Rajasekar said, which require the participation of the community as researchers work toward solutions.

“Once they come up with a solution, researchers can create a model that can then be used in other communities,” he said. “You use findings from this community to help other communities.”

Rajasekar said the smart and connected communities can be successful provided those communities they work with contribute actively to the partnership.

“You don’t prescribe something and tell them to do it; you try to work with the people to find solutions, because one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.