CEHC Researchers Publish New Book on COVID-19 and the Digital Divide

Person holds up phone with COVID-19 Screening Tool app opened.
Photo by Cory Checketts / Unsplash.com

By Mike Nolan

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 23, 2023) — From remote work and learning environments to new healthcare technologies, the COVID-19 crisis has sped up digital transformation in nearly every sector around the world. 

In a new book, two researchers at the University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity (CEHC) are sharing a unique account of how the pandemic response impacted technological innovation in the United States and China, with a specific focus on use, access and adoption of these technologies within marginalized populations.

The book, “Social Vulnerability to COVID-19,” was published by Springer Nature last month as part of a series on topics related to information science and applications of technology. 

“When crises, disasters and extreme events occur, marginalized populations are often more vulnerable and are presented with more challenges during preparedness, response and recovery,” said Xiaojun (Jenny) Yuan, an associate professor in CEHC’s Department of Information Sciences and Technology and co-editor of the new book. “The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many disparities in technology for these communities.”

Social Vulnerability to COVID-19 book cover.

“We know that technological challenges were experienced globally among socially vulnerable populations during COVID-19,” added DeeDee Bennett Gayle, an associate professor in CEHC’s Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security and book co-editor. “Our book highlights the need for more research on technology as a potential tool for resilience and technology adoption, as well as the impacts to underrepresented communities during COVID.” 

Yuan, an information scientist who studies human-computer interaction and information behavior, and Bennett Gayle, a disaster scientist who studies the influence and integration of advanced technologies among vulnerable populations, have been examining technological disparities since the early days of the pandemic.

In 2021, they helped organize a workshop called “Supporting and Engaging Diverse and Vulnerable Populations with Technology Adoption Amid COVID-19,” which then led to an invitation to co-edit the new book as part of the Springer series, along with Dan Wu from Wuhan University in China.

“We learned through our research that AI technologies for people with disabilities, older adults and children are still at the preliminary technical development stage,” Yuan said. “They need to be evaluated at the user level, with a focus on identifying the needs of these populations.”

The new book’s eight chapters dive into a variety of topics including technological innovations in response to COVID-19, the adoption of artificial intelligence by marginalized populations, the health information needs of COVID-19 patients, the digital divide faced by the elderly, and the difficulties of vulnerable groups in accessing public health information during the pandemic.

“Think about how often you leveraged technology to continue work, access government services, go to school, or even just to buy order food and buy groceries during the pandemic,” Bennett Gayle said. “Considerations should be made at every sector and industry for individuals or groups who are having a greater difficulty due to the digital divide, digital literacy or device accessibility.”

In addition to the new book, Yuan and Bennett Gayle worked together on a research agenda for the use of technology amid COVID-19 that was shared by the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. They are publishing a monograph later this year that will provide an overview of the specific uses of technology that empowered or further disadvantaged individuals and groups during the pandemic.

Two CEHC doctoral students, Thora Knight and Elizabeth Dubois, also co-wrote chapters for the new book, along with Salimah LaForce from the Georgia Institute of Technology.