Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Michigan State University in 2010, John Simpkins traveled to India to pilot an international development partnership between his academic department and KLBDAV, a college for women in Himachal Pradesh. His original plan was to spend four months helping students develop career goals and resumes, create online profiles, and use the Internet to find work they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
In the town of Palampur, which is surrounded by tea gardens and located near the Dhauladhar Mountain Range, “they had 30 computers in various states of disrepair that they used very infrequently because the Internet connection was so poor,” John said. Over the next few weeks, his project changed direction and he found himself proposing, designing, deploying and documenting a solution for better connectivity: a campus-wide wi-fi network on a budget of less than $1,000.
“It couldn’t have gone better,” he said. “The most vindicating part was how greatly the wi-fi network increased internet usage on the campus, both by freeing up access to the computer lab and by allowing students to bring their own devices.” It was such a powerful experience, John decided to make it the focus of his career path, starting with getting a degree in human computer interaction from UMSI.
Although he grew up in a suburb of Flint, Michigan, John’s family never had cable. They were, however, early Internet adopters. “I adored having Internet access and remember trying to stream the International Space Station being put into orbit in 1998,” he said. “My thought, as I watched, was that this technology is going to change the way we find information and the way we interact with each other. At that point, the Internet became really interesting to me.” John was also an early adopter of web-based social networking platforms. “The Internet offered a level of social interaction I couldn’t get in a small community,” he said.
“In 2009, 56% of U.S. libraries had a connection speed equal to or slower than the broadband connection I was able to negotiate for a school 7,000 feet up in the Himalayas,” John said. “That is a huge problem.” He saw UMSI as an avenue to help him reach his overall goal of eventually changing the status quo in the U.S. for purchasing broadband access.
He’s taken several influential courses that have helped him hone his research interests. In “Managing the IT Organization,” he wrote a paper proposing new ideas for the future of independent Internet Service Providers, and used techniques developed in “Introduction to Interaction Design” to create a prototype for increasing user awareness of connectivity on smartphones. Last spring, John was invited to attend South by Southwest where he presented that prototype and gave informal talks on increasing user engagement with web content. He also attended the Community Fiber Networks conference in Tinley Park, IL on behalf of UMSI in 2013.
Over the past year, John has worked for the marketing and communications group at UMSI, specializing in writing, social media engagement, content strategy, web development, and usability. He is graduating this month from UMSI with a specialization in human-computer interaction and has been hired by the School of Information to work on usability, web infrastructure development, and special projects.