Episode 53: Mapping Internet Access Across the US to Support Offline Tech

Welcome back to Tech Forward, listeners! This week, I spoke with Oklahoma City-based software developer Carmen Bourlon. As her career as a developer progressed, Carmen began to explore her passion for offline technology, which allows people without Internet access to utilize resources that are generally only available online. Using US census data, she created Margiemap, which plots income against library access. She’s also in the process of finishing her first book, Let’s Take This Offline. Today we’ll be discussing her career journey as a developer, what inspired her interest in offline technology, and how she is using her wealth of knowledge about the Internet access disparity affecting millions of Americans.

As a self-taught developer, Carmen learned to program from a book while living in a rural area without Internet access in her home. This not only shaped her learning process — letting problems stack up until she was able to go somewhere with Internet access — but also fostered her interest in offline technology. Realizing that Internet connections are fickle and users have no true control over it, she emphasizes that the responsibility is with developers to understand this issue and consider it while designing web based apps. While offline technology has universal applications, Carmen’s particular interest lies with populations without Internet access.

Though many of us living in cities may not realize it, Internet access disparity affects millions of Americans. According to studies conducted by Pew Research, the percentage of households in the US that are considered “smartphone dependent” has increased from 12% in 2015 to roughly 20% in 2018. Studies have also shown a clear link between Internet access and access to higher paying jobs in the developing world. Put simply: “Internet access is opportunity access.” Armed with this knowledge, Carmen created Margiemap as a way to visually display income against library access in the United States. Controlling for population, she found that lower income areas, where people are less likely to have a home Internet connection, have significantly less access to libraries.

Carmen’s current plan is to dive deeper into the data and begin to blog about her discoveries, though she does hope that other people will take an interest in her work and begin their own research. Her work with Margiemap has informed her interest in a type of offline technology called “service workers,” which she will cover in depth in her upcoming book, Let’s Take This Offline. If you’d like to learn more about service workers, sign up for the mailing list to stay informed and see some sneak peaks.

Carmen, thank you so much for coming onto the show to share your process and everything you’ve learned about offline technology and why it’s so important. I look forward to learning more when your book comes out. Thank you, also, to everyone out there listening, sharing, and reviewing the show. See you next week!

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