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NSF awards Syracuse faculty member grant to study workers in gig economy

Steven Sawyer
Steven Sawyer is a faculty member in Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies (iSchool). (Photo credit: Syracuse University website)

Examples of people working in the gig economy are people who drive for ride-hailing companies, such as Uber or Lyft; or those who complete a programming assignment on the freelance marketplace Fiverr, Syracuse said in a news release posted on the school’s website.

Steven Sawyer, a faculty member in Syracuse’s School of Information Studies (iSchool), will also use the funding to study what challenges the workers need to overcome for success in their work.

The NSF awarded the grant under its EAGER program, which is short for “early-concept grants for exploratory research,” Syracuse said.


NSF provides the funding to researchers to support “exploratory work in early stages on untested but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches,” the school added.


About the work

Besides the challenges they face, Sawyer’s research will also focus on understanding how workers from “disadvantaged” backgrounds are prepared to participate in this “quickly-growing” arena.

“While we know that gig-based jobs are growing in popularity for workers across the spectrum, we don’t have a great understanding of what it takes to be a worker in this kind of environment, especially among disadvantaged populations,” Sawyer said in the Syracuse news release. “Our goal is to understand, in greater depth, what will be needed to make this kind of work successful, and to identify the particular challenges and needs of workers who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as single parents or rural workers, for example.”

Sawyer and his research team plan to study topics that include how these workers obtain and organize their resources; how they use digital tools and services; and where they work.

“These workers often work outside of typical office settings. Their workspaces include coffee shops, libraries, co-working centers, and other on-the-go places,” said Sawyer. “Some have routine circuits of travel and can rely on co-working spaces, while some are more nomadic. Either way, they must organize and reconfigure their work resources, creating ‘mobile offices’ that provide cognitive space, physical space, communications, and direct work resources.”

Sawyer’s work will also focus on developing better methods for collecting data on gig workers, and how to understand the alternative uses of the digital platforms, applications, and devices these workers use.

“We see our work contributing to policies and programs focused on educating, training, and preparing a more digitally-enabled workforce of the future,” said Sawyer. “…it is clear that these new digital platforms and gig-work opportunities are only going to get more popular as their adoption steadily increases.”


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