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Rural communities and the Internet

\ Moira K Stone (mailto:mkstone@celtic.co.uk)

\ November 1996

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Introduction

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There's been a lot talked and written about the use of information technology and the Internet to people living in rural areas and their communities. But how useful is it actually proving to be? This article presents some 'snapshots' of individuals and organisations which are using the Internet to their overall benefit and, directly or indirectly, strengthening rural communities. The snapshots are of different subjects which are organised in three sections, although several snapshots could as easily be in one section as in another. The sections are: information and learning; making links and having a voice; and earning a living. This article does not pretend to be comprehensive; there are gaps and oversights which will no doubt be filled as more information is shared.

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It's clear that every rural community is unique: no two are exactly alike. The challenges they face, though, are drawn from a common list. Some of these are sketched in the following list - which will be more than familiar to rural readers. (It should go without saying, of course, that there are also many benefits of living in rural communities.)

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People in rural areas can live at some distance from other communities, settlements, villages or towns. There may be only a small number of people and this does not allow the economies of scale which benefit urban residents.

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Many people in rural communities live at some distance from services of all kinds (such as shops and post offices, schools and colleges, doctors, advice and benefit offices, and cinemas and theatres). And these services may be found in completely different directions. It can cost more than the budget will stand to travel to them. There may be no choice.

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Although some people in rural areas have well-paid, regular employment, for others work may be scarce, irregular and/or badly paid. Just as in urban areas, it's possible to be poor or deprived. The scenery does not make this any easier.

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Rural areas in many parts of Britain have seen people both moving away (for education, to find work or seeking the bright lights) and moving in (away from cities, to retire or sometimes for work). \

Information technology and the Internet are tools which can help to minimise some of the challenges sketched above. In doing so, rural communities can be strengthened - not only geographical communities but also those other groups of which people are members: young people, business, the agricultural community, and so on.

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The 'snapshots' in this article begin to draw out out the benefits and challenges of using the Internet, together with some advice for others thinking of using it. These points are brought together at the end of the article.

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Information and learning

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Information technology makes it possible for many people in rural areas to find information about a huge range of subjects much more easily and conveniently.

Cousins in Hampshire

Hampshire County Council's Cousin (Community Users Information) service brings a enormous amount of community information to the public, easily, quickly and locally. Anyone can 'ask their Cousin' for a contact name for anything from beekeeping to waste recycling. Cousin harnesses the power of technology to bring together half a dozen or more local directories from local authorities, health service providers, business, voluntary agencies and charities. It can be accessed from different places including information centres, local information points, libraries and schools.

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David Walden, the director of Age Concern Hampshire says: 'We welcome Cousin as an important new resource. All our outlets are in the directory. Through Cousin we can raise awareness of the services we provide, recruit volunteers for our branches and inform our clients about what's available to them. Cousin takes voluntary service into the information age and we're delighted to be part of that.'

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E-mail: Hantsweb@hants.gov.uk

Web-site: http://www.hants.gov.uk

LOIS in Hereford and Worcester

The Hereford and Worcester Library Online Information Service (LOIS) began in March 1993 as the Golden Valley Information Project. This tested the feasibility of providing electronic information services to the Golden Valley area, a relatively isolated area which is home to about 2,500 people. The 1991 census showed that as many as 20 per cent of households had no car and were dependent on public transport.

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Computer terminals which could access external databases were put in public places such as village post offices, a shop and a resource centre. The public's response to this, together with other information, has led to a strategy to place public computer terminals throughout the county. In rural areas these will probably based in the Community Council of Hereford and Worcester's most well-used community resource centres. The service already connects to the county council's 'intranet' and, depending on funding, may connect to the Internet in the future. External databases (such as that of the Department of Social Security) can be accessed and more and more local organisations, such as DIAL - the Disability Information Advice Line, are making their information available to be used by the service. \

Benefits? People can now find out information from train times across the country and entertainment listings to education courses and benefits details. All of this would have been difficult to find before. Job vacancies within local government are posted weekly. Soon other job vacancies will be advertised and, in time, schools' prospectuses. \

Challenges? Finding the right place to put a public computer terminal can be difficult in a rural area. Even when somewhere is found circumstances can change. A room in a school worked well for a time, for example, but eventually it was needed for other purposes.

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It can take time for people to get used to different services. The post office might seem an ideal location but in some communities it's only open in the morning. Although the key is available next door, some people are, as yet, reluctant to go and fetch it.

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How the 'custodian' of the computer behaves can affect how much people use it. He or she may think of it as personal property so potential users may have to ask for it to be switched on and not allowed to use it themselves.

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Advice? Considerable time was spent in discussing with residents of Golden Valley the types of information they needed. This continued throughout the project to ensure that the service grew from the actual needs of the area rather than being imposed from outside. David Morris of Hereford and Worcester's Library Online Information Service suggests: 'Give it time for people to become comfortable with the techonology.'

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E-mail: dmorris@tacin.co.uk

LOIS web-site: http://www.open.gov.uk/hereford/homepage.html

Golden Valley web-site: http://www.open.gov.uk/hereford/gvishome.htm

University of Highlands and Islands

Information technology now makes it possible for students to choose from a wider range of subjects at all levels, whether they live in a city or a small rural community. There's less of a need for a knowledgeable teacher or resources to be available locally or for there to be enough students to make running a course economical. The technology makes it possible for teaching to be delivered from urban or larger centres to smaller ones. Students from small schools in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, for example, join with others in taking lessons, preparing for exams and talking to friends all round the world. In West Wales, eight schools are taking part in a pilot project about remote sensing and geography. The schools make use of a large archive of remotely sensed images from the Satellite Centre, together with image-processing software and support on using it. Video-conferencing allows them to share data.

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The ambitious University of Highlands and Islands project will use technology to link 11 further education collges and research institutions. 'Distance learning' techniques such as video and computer conferences will be used by students across an area bigger than Belgium. The first UHI network degree will be one in rural development. Sabhal Mór Ostaig, the Gaelic-medium college on Skye, is part of the developing network. It has developed a web-site so that it can become a centre for providing information in and about Gaidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) and to advertise the college and its courses across the world. \

University of the Highlands and Islands web-site: http://www.uhi.ac.uk/

Sabhal Mór Ostaig web-site: http://www.uhi.smo.ac.uk/

North East Scotland Telematics Forum

NEST, the North East Scotland Telematics Forum is currently running an innovative training programme, the Telematics Competence Programme, on behalf of Community Business Grampian Limited. It leads to three units of the Information Technology Scottish Vocational Qualification and may be the first in Britain to provide a formal qualification in telematics. A team of participants work together on a project usually destined to be placed on the Internet. What makes it unique is that they work from home or resource centres around the region and only meet four times, for workshops at the Northern College in Aberdeen. Course tutors stay in touch by e-mail and by personal visits and all course work is transferred electronically to them. The SVQ assessor from the Northern College also works electronically, although a home visit must be done just to check it's really the participant on the other end of the e-mail.

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Benefits? Running the course in this way makes it much easier for people living in rural areas and people with disabilities to take part.

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Web-site: http://regionlink.com/grampian/gtp/tele.htm

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One of the possibilities offered by the Internet is for community to talk to community.

Network 2000

Network 2000 in Devon and Cornwall is based on the recognition that work in society is changing and that people need a range of skills to accompany them throughout their lives. Interactive and visual skills connected with telematics (information technology and telecommunications) are part of this range. Network 2000 believes, therefore, that training and 'learning for life' are the key, both to individual development and to the future prosperity of the South West.

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The Network also promotes direct access. In January 1996 a number of rural community strategic organisations took part in a live satellite and video-conferencing link-up with Jimmy Jamar, the head of the European Lifelong Learning Year event. People from Devon and Cornwall were able to question him directly without editing. He, in turn, was amazed to find himself speaking to a huge number of people, often in small groups tucked away in villages or hamlets.

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A European Training by Satellite project links rural areas in Devon and Cornwall with rural clusters in Finland, Denmark, Spain, Sicily and a number of other European partners. The project is creating joint training programmes for the tourism sector in rural areas using satellite television. With simply a telephone in the same room as the television, people are able to contribute by telephone. Where groups also have video-conferencing facilities, they can take part 'visually' from their own area and be broadcast simultaneously across Europe by satellite. They are visible to all, even though they are not broadcasting by satellite itself.

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The most recent broadcast of this type (called 'co-terminus ISDN/satellite broadcast') took place on 23 October 1996 from the ITN building in London. Even seasoned business television broadcasters were impressed, one of whom said, 'In all the years I've been broadcasting, I've never actually seen the audience come back to us and know who they are.

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Benefits? People in rural communities can take advantage of high-quality training without having to travel. This saves time and money and has environmental benefit. Satellite broadcast works well in rural areas where telecommunications can be less good than in urban areas.

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Challenges? Christine Fraser of Network 2000 comments: 'When you take part in projects like this which reach out to you, then you have to be active rather than passive. “Interactivity” itself is a challenge.'

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Advice? 'Satellite broadcast can be received right across Europe. If anyone is broadcasting in the “clear” and you know about it, all you need is a TV set, a satellite box and a dish to see it. Network 2000 would be happy to include you if you wanted to know when and what we are broadcasting. You could do the same and we'd have a rural community satellite broadcast system up and running before anyone could say “knife!” Community groups should be able to find niches for themselves in the digital and cable broadcasting explosion.'

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For the future, RAINBOW is a project to get a dedicated satellite transponder for Devon and Cornwall. The project will train rural radio/internet hams to broadcast by satellite using a mini-console. It will enable rural communities to have independent control of their interactive broadcasts. The transponder would be available to business and community groups such as women's institutes, farmers, young people, arts groups, the emergency services and mobile phone users. The 'carboot sale in cyberspace' - that is, distance auctioning (CyberBoot - copyright Network 2000) - would leave the drawing board, ensuring that useable material is being recycled in the region and that local products find new local markets.'

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E-mail: christin@net2000.zynet.co.uk

Lifelong learning event web-site: http://www.zynet.co.uk/net2000/

Linking Wales and Canada

What do Llanfairpwll on Anglesey in North Wales and Tatamagouche in Nova Scotia in Canada have in common? Not only non-English names but they're also near ferry ports. You catch the ferry to Ireland from Holyhead on Anglesey, just up the road from Llanfairpwll and you catch the ferry to Prince Edward Island just up the road from Tatamagouche. Both are ideal stops for travellers before or after the ferry crossing.

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Llanfairpwll's community organisation, Cyswllt, says: 'In the future, when we get ourselves sorted out, we would like to share ideas and compare notes with other community groups via e-mail, so that we can all help each other on how best to approach particular projects, pitfalls to avoid, possible new activities, etc. \

(NB - Llanfairpwll is the village with the longest name in Britain: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. In English, the Welsh name means Saint Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the church of Saint Tysilio of the red cave.)

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Llanfairpwll web-site: http://www.nwi.co.uk/llanfair/

North Wales Internet message pages: http://www.nwi.co.uk/

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Tatamagouche and area is home to a project which aims to develop a 'smart rural community', using the power of the computer and its related technologies. The people of Tatamagouche believe that access to and sharing information within their community and with other communities will contribute to a prosperous future. In May 1996 the project held a successful event about information technology. One participant said: 'All who came to the event, whether they were a novice (who thought that 'surfing the net' involved a bathing suit) or an experienced computer technologist walked away knowing more about the potential of the Internet.'

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Tatamagouche Smart Rural Community exposition web-site: http://south.nsis.com/\~expo

Tatamagouche unofficial home page: http://south.nsis.com/\~two/

Kington in Herefordshire

Kington in Herefordshire has been running a similar project for a number of years, the Kington Connected Community (KC3). KC3 sees it as a dual experiment. The first part is technological: what happens when you invest a large amount of state-of-the-art technology in a small, declining rural town? The second part is democratic: all people living or working in the community are members or shareholders in the projects and the majority of the board is elected by them. \

Web-site: http://sundial.kc3ltd.co.uk/index.html

Western Isles internet café

Angus and Mairi Mackenzie have got a unique location for children's parties. And a collection of football memorabilia. They run the Western Isles internet café in Stornoway, the first in the Western Isles and only the fifth in Scotland. The café has been open since March 1996 and has five multi-media PCs with 17“ screens available for the public to come in and use to get onto the net. People of all ages use the café although, at present, three-quarters are between 10 and 17 years old. Angus and Mairi Mackenzie say: 'We are more than happy to pass e-mail messages on to others on Lewis on your behalf.' It's no more than you'd do if you found a person in common with someone you met whilst travelling but also a good marketing device. \

Benefits? The Internet offers people in rural communities 'an instant information access and communication method, not disrupted by postal strikes, adverse weather or non-sailing of the ferry! Children can further their education by corresponding with people all over the world.'

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Challenges? Although younger people are keen to use information technology, it's a challenge to get the older community to become familiar with it.

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Advice? 'Check thoroughly what funds or help are available from enterprise companies, the local council and so on.'

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E-mail: bayble@captions.co.uk

Web-site: http://www.captions.co.uk/

County Mayo

In County Mayo in the west of Ireland Roisin Hambly (aged 14) puts together her global e-zine with the help of her father. It's called Roizine. The magazine has sections on entertainment, poetry, short stories and stars or you can find an e-pal. There are links to pages about Mayo. \

Benefits? Roisin says: 'The benefits of the net are that I get to contact lots of interesting people all over the world and see the homepages they themselves have made. I've got loads of e-pals and I've learnt a lot about different cultures and I've made great friends. The benefits of my magazine to me are that it's a hobby; it's interesting reading other people's work; knowing that at anytime, someone, somewhere could be looking at my magazine. The benefits to others are that they get a chance to put their work in a magazine that can be looked at by anyone; they can find e-pals easily; they get an insight into Irish life.'

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Challenges? Roisin doesn't see there being any more challenges to her than to someone with a magazine in New York.

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Advice? Roisin says: 'Well, I've only been on the net since April or May and I think for a while I was really addicted! There's no end of things you can find, it's very helpful for some school work or if you're interested in contacting people in different countries. It's really easy to get the hang of it - even my mother can use it and she hates computers! When I first started up my magazine it had about three pages and one person on the e-pal page. It took a fair bit of work to get it off the ground but once people started to find it and send in their work it got bigger and better. Now when I have to make changes it doesn't take long. I'm really glad I set up my magazine and I think anyone who's thinking about it should definitely give it a go.'

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E-mail: editor@mayo-ireland.ie

Web-site: http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/Roizine.htm \

Earning a living

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Most businesses operating and employing people in rural areas are small and that includes tourism and accommodation businesses. How do they make sure they stay in business and make a profit, thereby putting money into the local economy? How do they market their product effectively? Being part of an umbrella organisation is one way. Using the Internet as a marketing tool to convert interest from anywhere in the world into an immediate sale is another.

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It's an easy mistake to think that only farming happens on farms. Many, if not all, farms have always had more than one source of income and that has become increasingly important. Tourism is an area into which many farms have diversified, whether by providing bed and breakfast accommodation or tourist activities.

Farm Holiday Bureau

The Farm Holiday Bureau is a network of over 1,000 farms which provide bed and breakfast or self-catering accommodation in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In the last year (1995-96) it has put its 400-page guide to members on the world-wide web. Each member can also pay an annual fee of between £35 and £40 to have their own page which usually incorporates a picture of the farm. Webscape, the Bureau's Internet provider, then links the farmhouses to make sure that pages are visited. In addition, the information is available in Japanese on a Japanese web-server. (Webscape is also the service provider for the Icelandic Farm Holiday Bureau.)

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Visitors to the Bureau's pages can order a copy of the printed guide and be put on the e-mail news list. They can make bookings using e-mail or fax directly from the Internet, if farms have either of these facilities.

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Benefits? In the year in which the service has been running, there have been 25,000 visitors to one or more of the Farm Holiday Bureau pages, equivalent to the number of printed guides sold. Visits are made not only via the first of the web pages (its 'front door') but also directly to farms' own pages. Small bed and breakfast operations are getting world-wide advertising at an affordable price.

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Challenges? Although some farms have had tremendous success others are still waiting to reap the benefit. It can take time for people to understand the possibilities offered by the Internet.

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Advice? Roger Phillips of Webscape suggests: 'Start with a small site which can cost as little as £50 a year. Then decide whether and how you want to expand it. Let it expand naturally.'

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E-mail: info@fhbaccom.demon.co.uk

Farm Holiday Bureau web-site: http://www.webscape.co.uk/farmaccom/

Japanese version: http://www.aandepro.com/farmholiday/

Icelandic Farm Holiday Bureau web-site: http://www.webscape.co.uk/iceland/

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'It was the quietness that was heard most, broken only by the sound of a cow lowing, or the breeze stirring the trees and the crunch of gravel under our tires.' So wrote the New York Times about a cycling holiday organised by Bicycle Beano in Mid Wales and the Marches area of England.

Bicycle Beano

In order to target potential customers in North America and Europe (particularly Germany) Jane Barnes and Rob Green decided to be ahead of the game and put their brochure on the world-wide web in May 1995. Potential customers can browse through the brochure, choose a holiday and then make a booking. At present this is done by printing out the booking form and sending a deposit by post although provisional bookings can be made by e-mail. There are plans to have a multi-lingual site.

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Benefits? Direct marketing abroad is often too expensive and time-consuming for small rural businesses but the world-wide web makes it possible to reach individual potential customers. People are able to respond immediately and make a booking. In the future, Bicycle Beano will certainly save on costs, especially postage abroad and printing brochures.

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Challenges? Jane Barnes says: 'You have to make sure that your pages are quick to load but still look good. We've gone for a black background which shows up our photos nicely. You also have to work hard to make sure that your site is visited - by sending information around to the major search engines and other sites.'

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Advice: 'Count the cost because doing it properly will cost more than just buying the basic kit. You have to decide if you think it's going to be worthwhile. And you won't get it right in the first year!'

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E-mail: bicycle@beano.kc3Ltd.co.uk

Web-site: http://www.kc3Ltd.co.uk/local/beano/

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So...?

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So what have the 'snapshots' in this article told us about some of the benefits and challenges of information technology and the Internet to people in rural communities?

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Distance and cost

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Information technology and the Internet certainly can 'shrink distance'. They make it possible to communicate immediately with people both near at hand and very far away. Business, education, government and work is no longer as dependent on place or transport. People can stay in touch easily with their distant friends and family; businesses can market their products and services further afield. There can be savings in the amount of time and money spent on travelling and in the amount of money spent on postage and printing. These savings, in turn, mean environmental gains.

Resources and services

A wider range of information and advice can be made available to rural residents and professionals. Choice in some areas (such as learning and hobbies) can be expanded. The quality of provision (such as in types of local health care) may be improved. Potential visitors can learn about rural communities.

Work and jobs

Information technology has broadened the range of work it's possible to do in and from rural areas. Existing businesses, even small ones, can market themselves abroad with the potential to convert interest into immediate sales. It has become possible to work at home, increasing job opportunities, and giving more free time at home and in the community. It is no longer necessary for some high-level jobs to be done in towns and cities. Areas and communities can promote themselves on the world-wide web, giving an insight into their way of life and encouraging tourism.

Community

An increase in the variety of types of work which can be done in rural areas means that people don't necessarily have to move away to find work. They can both live and work in their own communities.

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The community has access to a wider pool of interests and talents which may generate new and innovative ideas. Links can be made between communities debating similar issues and new communities of interest can be formed.

Time and motivation

It takes time to become familiar with and to understand the possibilities offered by information technology and the Internet. Training and practice are needed, as is the motivation to communicate with other groups and individuals.

Equality of access

People in rural communities are already benefiting indirectly from information technology but ensuring that everyone in rural communities can benefit directly is a big challenge. Cost, location, ownership and training are some of the areas for discussion and clarification.

Advice?

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Finally, though, to adapt Roisin Hambly's advice: 'Anyone who's thinking about it should definitely give it a go.'

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More information

AeRIE - Applied Rural Telecom Resource Guide

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Web-site: http://www.yampa.com/aerie/resource/resource.html

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The guide provides rural communities throughout the United States and the world with a toolkit of resources to help them meet their economic and community development goals using telecommunications. The guide offers a directory of economic development resources, an overview of basic telecommunications concepts, a schedule of forthcoming conferences and events, and background information on rural infrastructure.

LEADER

NiAA (Northern Informatics Applications Agency)

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Web-site: http://www.niaa.org.uk/rural.html

Scottish Teleworking Association

TCA

Telecottages Wales

Telework Ireland

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