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Studying the impact of cell phones

By Kyle Schut '13
August 15, 2012

As part of the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, Thomas Hegland '13 has spent the summer investigating how cell phone service has transformed the global business landscape.

Hegland was one of six students from across the country chosen from a pool of more than 250 applicants to intern at the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The internship, part of the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, enabled him to work with scholars from a wide array of social sciences while examining the impact cell phones have had on businesses.

"While it's hard to imagine now, the ubiquity of cell phones is really a remarkably new phenomenon," says Hegland. "It's affected the way we live our lives and do business."

Although studies have been done on the impact of cell phone usage by state, they suffer from a lack of detailed data. When cell phone infrastructure began popping up in the U.S. in the early 1990s, very few people were concerned about creating detailed maps of coverage and signal quality, which poses a significant problem for Hegland's research. To remedy this, he used data collected for a different purpose: aviation safety. Concerns that cell towers might pose a hazard to pilots led the Federal Aviation Administration to require builders to register the location of new cell towers, with the FAA and Federal Communications Commission keeping record of them.

Using this data, Hegland was able to come up with a rough estimate of the quality of cell service in a given county. His analysis has so far led him to conclude that better quality cellular service is associated with greater numbers of new businesses, a find which he hopes may encourage local governments to support cell phone infrastructure.

The ICPSR was founded in 1962 as a means for colleges and universities to have broad access to a wide variety of datasets, which is a critical part of conducting research. During his time with the consortium, Hegland has held a number of responsibilities, such as proofreading studies and making them ready for analysis by others.

His work at ICPSR will ultimately end up benefitting St. Olaf as well, as the college is a member institution of the organization and therefore has access to every one of its datasets. Hegland also has enjoyed interacting with the many different types of people working and researching at the ICPSR.

"This internship has provided me with an excellent opportunity to advance my knowledge of statistics with scholars of all backgrounds in the social sciences," says Hegland. "Having to switch between conversations with sociologists, economists, epidemiologists, and statisticians throughout the day has been a great learning experience and has stretched the liberal arts character of my education to its limits."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or