Techmobile makes stop at Lewistown Library

Chanda Phelan came to Lewistown on her Techmobile tour Wednesday to listen to tech needs in the community. Phelan will be back again next Wednesday.

Photo by Charlie Denison

Charlie Denison

A distinctive blue camper with wires painted around it drew the attention of Lewistown Public Library patrons Wednesday.

“What is it?” a person asked while walking past it on the way to the entrance.

The camper is none other than the Techmobile, owned and operated by Chanda Phelan, a University of Michigan PhD student currently venturing around Montana’s rural communities offering technology assistance.

Last week, Phelan went to Laurel, Harlowton and Lewistown to assist residents with setting up emails or Facebook, getting comfortable with their smartphones, getting started on do-it-yourself home automation projects and more. She even brought some fun gadgets for the children to play with, such as a 3D printer, virtual reality goggles, Raspberry Pi computers and Maker toys.

A native of Wooster, Ohio, Phelan grew up in a rural area and wants to reconnect with rural areas, especially after getting her education at Pomona College in Los Angeles.

“It was a huge culture shock going from Amish country to L.A.,” she said.

Studying the technological needs of rural America for her dissertation is work Phelan takes pride in, but she’s also just glad to be of assistance, helping in any way she can while she’s in town. It’s a win-win situation, beneficial to her and others.

“I am doing research on how people in rural areas use technology,” she said. “Being from rural Ohio, I wanted to get a sense of how similar and different the challenges are here versus the Midwest, and they are pretty different.”

In Ohio, she said, you drive 45 minutes and you’re in some sort of population center, but that’s not the case everywhere in Montana.

“You’re going to have solid service pretty much wherever you go in Ohio,” she said, “but, out here, service is really limiting and often a pretty big problem.”

Phelan said most of the technological issues people came to her about in Lewistown Wednesday were service-related.

“One woman was telling me she had to stand on her car to order dog food,” Phelan said. “Someone isn’t going to integrate technology into their lives if they have to stand on their car to get access to it.”

Such an inconvenience caused by modern technology surprises Phelan and it also does not fit the stereotype of rural America’s approach to the digital age.

“The stereotype is that people in rural areas are afraid of technology or don’t like change, and there is some of that, but what I’m mainly finding is people having trouble getting an internet presence because service is so difficult to come by. I talked to one woman who checks into a motel room when she needs to upload a bunch of stuff. Why does she still have to do that? It’s 2017. That’s ridiculous.”


Urban vs. Rural

One of the major issues Phelan has discovered thus far is that technology is more integrated into peoples’ lives in urban areas, and government and businesses making policies assume that same level of technological integration. They assume technology is there whenever people need it. However, that’s not always the case for rural America.

“No one is looking into what happens when you don’t have that full integration,” Phelan said. “If you don’t, how does that change your technological needs?”

The answer, Phelan said, is “a lot.”

There are a number of examples, she said.

“Government assistance is online now, which can be a huge problem for people who don’t know how to use a mouse,” she said. “I saw this in Harlowton. The librarian had to show them how to move the mouse from one field to another. It takes forever, and the librarian doesn’t have the time to do this for everybody. Libraries are crazy underfunded as it is.”

Phelan said there have been many insights and observations already, but what she’s most interested in working on deals more with mental health and physical health. How do people get the resources they need if they don’t have the same level of technological skills or technological literacy?

“I feel like the kind of technology I am trying to design is actually increasing health inequalities, making the well-off even better off and they are not doing anything for people in rural areas and people who are low-income,” Phelan said. “My field – a technology design field – has a habit of solving a problem they see in a community without actually bothering to check with the community to see if the community also thinks it’s a problem. They might solve a problem that’s completely irrelevant.”

Phelan wants to take a different approach.

“I’m trying to spend more time in these communities and see what people here think the issues are before I try to solve a problem that doesn’t need to be solved,” she said. “I’m trying to do research that will actually make an impact and will matter. It’s my hope that I can do research that will help the tech industry understand rural people better. The people aren’t all that different, but the way they use technology is, and that’s worth thinking about and talking about. We can’t just pretend everyone in America needs the same kind of technology. They don’t need the same kind of technology.”

Phelan will bring her Techmobille back next Wednesday, Aug. 16 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. to visit with anyone and everyone about technology questions or concerns.

“Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed,” she said. “There aren’t any stupid questions. I get confused by technology sometimes, and I’m working on my PhD.”

People who don’t need assistance are also encouraged to come by her station, especially children.

“Come check out the 3D printer and the virtual reality goggles,” she said. “Kids have been super excited. The Jurassic Park and underwater virtual reality games have been really popular. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from the kids. There’s something for everybody.”





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