An Agenda for Rural AI

An Agenda for Rural AI

Posted on November 10, 2023 by Cheri Coryea, consultant with The Patterson Foundation

"AI wants to learn what matters to rural communities, but from the people themselves." Cheri Coryea

What would a rural area have to gain from Artificial Intelligence (AI)? That's a question I asked myself when I received an invitation from the University of Florida, Associate Professor, Berkman Flein Center, Harvard University Senior Fellow-Tech Policy, Mozilla, Jasmine McNealy. She had recently heard the University of South Florida, WUSF Public Media, NPR interview that reporter Skylar Lebron had conducted with The Patterson Foundation (TPF) entitled, "How a Sarasota-based organization is helping people with internet access and literacy." In that interview, I talked about the work TPF is doing in the Digital Access for All (DA4A) and Aspirations to Actions (A2A) initiatives in rural DeSoto County.

The emphasis in both initiatives is directly reaching the people of the community and joining in conversations that allow their aspirations to become actionable possibilities. One of the eight areas that have risen to the top during our conversations with over 427 people in DeSoto County, Florida, is Technology and Digital Access. Something they lack and has hindered their progress academically and economically as a community. That said, this is where Rural AI comes in and why Associate Professor McNealy asked The Patterson Foundation to participate in a conference she developed and conducted on October 24th & 25th at the University of Florida in Gainesville, around Rural AI. Learn more here.

The description of the conference was as follows: Artificial intelligence is, necessarily, a topic of immense interest and concern because of the rapid development and deployment of various algorithmic and machine learning systems of varying stakes and complexity. Research and investigation of fairness and bias in these systems and the need for adequate policy is being undertaken in various contexts, from health to finance and criminal justice to human resources. Less research has focused on geography as a context for AI deployment. Even within current areas of investigation, there is a distinct bias for scrutinizing technology and its impacts within an urban context. This ignores the people and communities in non-urban spaces that are and will be impacted by the creation and use of artificial intelligence and connected systems. Scholars have examined the impact of AI on agriculture. The majority focused on yields and productivity. This is, undoubtedly, important research. But rural does not mean agriculture, although farming is an important aspect of rurality. There is a shortage of research critically considering policy for rural AI, and what that might mean for its creation, deployment, governance, and impacts.

The conference brought together 45 thought leaders, policymakers from government, rural and agricultural equity activists, technologists, leading scholars, scholarly rural tech representatives, and policy and ethics networks. During the 1.5 days of the workshop, the discussion centered around these topics:
  • Identifying the critical questions/issues surrounding AI in the rural context
  • Building framework(s) for rural AI policy
  • Building a network of practice surrounding rural AI
  • Identifying further areas of inquiry and collaboration for the rural context
With my, "TPF strives for excellence and strengthens the efforts of people, organizations, and communities by focusing on issues that address mutual aspirations, fosters wide participation, and encourages learning and sharing" hat on, I forged ahead in the conference surrounded by technology and AI experts from a dozen colleges around the country. Breakout sessions included small group discussions of ideas and concepts about framing a more realistic definition of rural that better represents today's challenges. It was noted that many datasets used by policymakers and researchers for rural communities fall short of representing rural realities.

While the study of AI is relatively new to most, it has rapidly expanded over the last several years as the timeliness of AI has been impacted by the pandemic, the rapid pace of technology, and remote learning. But keep in mind rural places like DeSoto County are just now seeing the possibilities of internet/broadband expansion across their rural community. If you think about it, that should tell you that the datasets that are currently being used in that community are not fully vetted by the actual residents.

However, amongst this conference group of AI experts, I learned they increasingly desire to interact with the community to truly seek to gain community-driven useful datasets that can be generated to AI and become valuable and accurate resources for rural areas. This is where TPF and the work of A2A came into focus and became relatable to building a framework and networks around policy connecting Rural AI with Community Conversations.

We are just at the beginning of this local conversation, but the excitement of exploring new ways of looking at rural communities from an AI perspective reveals the vulnerability and importance of listening and learning what people in rural areas know and care about. Every rural community's fabric and ecosystem differs from urban areas and those already fully connected to social media and the internet. At TPF, we know change happens at the speed of trust. Finding ways for people to engage and create their desired future, in this instance, reminds us of how expanding a narrow scope of thinking to a broad view of the collective resources from multiple sectors moves a community from scarcity to abundance. If you sit back and wait too long to have these conversations, AI will create its own new vision of our rural communities.

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