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Social Impact of Internet and Energy in Rural Africa (SIERA)

I’m very excited to announce that I am leading the research on a social impact study that will investigate the social impacts of providing electricity and Internet to a rural village in Tharaka Nithi Country, Eastern Kenya.

The work will explore the transformational impacts of an off-grid energy solution being implemented by a UK-based socially-driven organisation (to be named in due course). I am very happy to have the collaboration of Dr. Arjuna Sathiaseelan (University of Cambridge), Professor Claire Wallace and Professor Pamela Abbott (University of Aberdeen) and Michael McQuinn (independent researcher, New York) as well as the support of our industry partner.

Like many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, in Kenya large proportions of the population are off-grid in terms of electricity and unable to access Internet. Across sub-Saharan Africa, 585 million people cannot access electricity and there is a history of unsuccessful off grid energy solutions. Internet provision across sub-Saharan Africa is another issue, with a large digital divide existing in all countries, including Kenya.

Our industry partner has developed an innovative solution to scalable power and mobile Internet infrastructure provision for our community in rural Kenya. The technology consists of solar panel designs on shipping containers as well as wireless Internet technologies. The solution also incorporates a funding model to sustain and grow the infrastructures.

The objective of the social impact study is to explore the impacts on the community at social and economic levels. This will be done by carrying out research before, during and after the rollout process. We hope to provide research insights that can inform the academic community, as well as informing future work by our partner, and others in the industry, in order to provide the best possible outcomes and impacts for the communities served by such future projects. The research will ask: What are the social and economic impacts of providing power and Internet to previously underserved communities in rural Kenya? I leave for the first field trip this coming weekend (Sunday 18th June 2017), and I’m really looking forward to meeting the community and local stakeholders and immersing in the local culture to carry out this research.

 

 

Rural Crafting Communities in a Digital Age

Between April and July 2015, I carried out a small seed project in collaboration with a number of partners. The project, funded jointly by the Communities and Cultures Network + (CCN+) and dot.rural Digital Economy Partnership Fund, looked at how, working with a community of rurally-based craftspeople, we might co-produce new methodologies for online engagement. digi makingThe project brought together an exciting team of partners: myself and my colleague Paul Gault from dot.rural, Deborah Maxwell from Edinburgh College of Art, Nuno Sacramento and Yvonne Billimore from Scottish Sculpture Workshop, Iain Gildea from Peacocks Digi and Mike Rawlins from Talk About Local.

You can watch a short film about the project here:

The project emerged from our own research findings that many rural creative practitioners, including craftspeople, are not engaging with digital technologies or embracing the opportunities that these present. Even for those able to build a basic website or blog, or use the tools of social media, it’s not always obvious how to create engaging dialogue and connect with relevant new networks. There seemed to be a gap in the work being done to support craftspeople and makers in this field, something not helped by the urban bias that we have seen in recent years following the popularity of Florida’s 2012 thesis on the ‘creative class’. Rural practitioners and industries are often overlooked, even though they add significant value to rural economies and quality of life. In fact, our research has shown that creative individuals are increasingly attracted to rural areas, and can breathe new life into fragile rural communities suffering from population decline and loss of services.

The project

The first two workshops aimed to equip the participants with tools to engage with social media (Workshop 1) and build a basic website or blog on WordPress (Workshop 2).workshop digi Alongside delivering these skills, we also applied a storytelling approach to helping participants to articulate a narrative of their practices and their brand values. This resulted in meaningful content which was used on their social media profiles, websites and blogs. In the third workshop we introduced participants to digital making tools in Make Aberdeen (now Peacocks Digi), to explore the application of new digital making tools to traditional crafting and making practices.

Our participants reported a number of positive outcomes: they built better networks, in some cases leading to collaborations such as sharing exhibition spaces during the North East Open Studios fortnight (NEOS). They have already engaged a wider number of potential clients and new audiences, due to having created a stronger online presence and identity. elaine digi makingA number of participants either took out a membership of the maker lab, or planned to return in the future. Most strikingly though, the majority were most happy about the new confidence and skills that they had developed with digital tools, and are now keen to take this further in their making and marketing practices.

The project has developed new methods for engaging craftspeople and makers with digital technologies, in a way which is meaningful to their practices and values – importantly drawing on storytelling as a way to develop engaging online content. Although this approach was useful for craftspeople and makers, we are keen to explore its applications for other sectors and groups. Our work has shown that there is much scope for supporting and developing rural creative economies. We have a number of dissemination activities planned to get our findings out to relevant organisations and stakeholders. We’re keen to show that traditional digital engagement methods might not be appropriate for all groups. But we also want to make the point that creative practitioners have much to offer to rural economies and communities, they just need a little help along the way. We need to be working harder to support creative industries in rural areas.

Cross Currents Workshop, Bangalore, India.

Monday May 12th to Wednesday May 14th  

Location – IIIT Bangalore

In May 2014, I, along with David Beel (a colleague also based at the dot.rural Digital Economy Hub, University of Aberdeen) coordinated Cross Currents, a workshop at IIIT-Bangalore, which brought UK academics together with Indian academics and practitioners to discuss the roles of technology in enabling cultural practices in rural parts of India and the UK. David and I developed the idea for the workshop for the ‘India spoke’ of the dot.rural hub – a collaboration between dot.rural and colleagues at IIIT-Bangalore.

IIIT-Bangalore

The creation of the spoke provided an opportunity for funding to exchange ideas and pursue collaborative projects and relationships. The workshop was made possible with £18,000 of funding in total – £6,000 each provided by the dot.rural India spoke, Communities and Cultures Network Plus (CCN+) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The workshop promoted knowledge exchange between academics in the UK and India as well as with IT industries based in Bengaluru, concerning how digital technologies can be used to help develop cultural, arts, heritage and relevant business practices at the community level in rural areas. The activity brought together nine UK-based academics with more than twenty India-based academics and practitioners.

 the group

The workshop format allowed us to share research projects, findings and observations and to critically reflect on synergies and divergances between the UK and Indian cultural contexts. Participatory sessions actively encouraged the formation of collaborative research ideas and relationships. UK projects presented included CURIOS (digital heritage in the Outer Hebrides); SIRA (exploring empowering rural entrepreneurs through broadband infrastructures); Alan Walks Wales (Alan Dix walking the coast of Wales and exploring technology uses and perceptions on the way); University of the Village (a community learning model enabled by superfast broadband); digitised non-Roman scriptsBrighton Fuse (connecting arts and humanities with digital and ICT for creative clusters to empower creativity and innovation); Citizen Sense (investigating digital sensors and environmental practices); and Law Digital (how digital networks might reshape legislative discourses). India projects and initiatives included IT For Change (NGO applying technologies to social justice and equality agendas); Socionity (exploring digital applications to enable rural communities); Digital Hampi (innovative digital representations of ancient ruins); and Janastu (an NGO providing IT services for voluntary and civil society organisations).

In order to experience some ‘on the ground’ examples of cultural practices in rural India, participants experienced a field trip to the ancient princely capital of the Karnataka region, Mysore. Mysore is a beautiful city in the south of India, famed for being the centre of yoga and the production of silk and sandalwood. It is known as the cultural capital of the region and evokes a sense of a grand and regal past, rich in heritage and culture. Here, we visited a number of sites including the Oriental Research Institure (ORI), an institute which collects, preserves and publishes rare Sanskrit and Kannada (local language) palm leaf and paper manuscripts.

manu

shelves

We also visited Mysore Folklore Museum, a glorious fading palace filled with ancient treasures from all over the Karnataka region. The museum houses a number of significant artefacts including ancient masks and costumes, stone carved chariots, puppets, religious artefacts and toys. We observed that the people we met working here, and at ORI were happy to open glass cabinets and let us touch and leaf through ancient manuscripts and feel the fabrics of precious costumes – something we would not expect to be able to do in museums in the UK. A highlight of the field trip was a visit to the Vishva-Kshema Trust, a Vedic teaching community aiming to preserve and propogate Vedic wisdom and spirutual heritage in contemporary India. We visited at the tail end of a spiritual festival that had attracted thousands of people, which created an interesting atmosphere at a site much larger and with far more people than we had anticipated.

trust

We were treated to a fantastic vegetarian meal served on palm leaf plates made by hand by the community. Before the day was out we had also visited Myra Business School and Mysore Palace. During the day we were treated to several great meals, met a good number of interesting and welcoming people doing fascinating work, and we returned to our hotels worn out but fulfilled and ready for the final day of the workshop.

On the final day participants worked in small groups in participatory sessions, focusing the key themes from the previous two days. The main themes to emerge were: digital Heritage; digital engagement at the edge; creative clusters; and travelling tales. 

sessions

Everyone sorted themselves into the group most relevant or interesting to them, and worked towards ideas for collaborative work within the themes. So far, TB Dinesh, one of the Indian participants, has travelled around universities across the UK to meet and explore ideas further with various UK participants, Helen Pritchard from Goldsmith’s University is pursuing a project on urban gameing with the Fields of View Lab based in IIIT-Bangalore, Chris Dillon from UCL is working with Indian connections to develop an online Hindi-based language resource, and Alan Dix is investigating the possibility of a Newton-Bhaba PhD placement based at Birmingham University, which would enable an Indian student to study in the UK.

Following the workshop in Bangalore, David and I embarked on a trip to the ancient World Heritage Site Hampi. There, we visited the nearby Kannada University (which sits on the edge of a huge lake and explores local folklore and heritage, amongst other things. We met with Chulavaraju, a professor in Tribal Studies, who introduced us to his work in storytelling with local riverside communities. We are hoping to explore the potential of cross-cultural collaborations with Chulavaraju and TB Dinesh in relation to digitising intangible heritage.

ruins

Co-productive workshop: social media for creative practitioners

During Easter 2013, during Easter, I was in Cornwall for two weeks carrying out research interviews for ‘Cornwall’s Creative Communities and Broadband’, (the CornCCoB project). The project explores the role of broadband use for creative practitioners across the region, with a particular interest in how it impacts on their interactions with communities of practice and place. I spoke with a number of really interesting people and learnt a lot, not just about the ways in which people are using digital technologies in their creative practice, but also about the different layers of community found in Cornwall and how this might differ from one village or town to the next. Initially, the CornCCoB project aimed to carry out a before and after superfast broadband study of creative practitioners. The project partners with Falmouth University, British Telecom and Superfast Cornwall and is framed within the current rollout of superfast broadband taking place across the region. Yet many of the practitioners that I interviewed were not sure what level of broadband they were receiving, or whether they were superfast or not. Many were also unclear as to the benefits that superfast connections would have for them, beyond more reliable streaming of video content. Conversations in the interviews naturally turned to the role of social media in developing communities of practice and reaching wider audiences and clients – something particularly useful in a peripheral location such as Cornwall. Skills and engagement with social media varied across those that I spoke with. However, all practitioners, regardless of level of skill or confidence with using social media, expressed a desire for training, support, and a space for shared dialogue with peers. With this in mind, I decided to rethink the second stage of the CornCCoB project, and organise a workshop bringing together creative practitioners, academics and arts support agencies to co-produce knowledge on the barriers and opportunities presented by social media for creative practice.

clustering

In April (2014) I travelled to Falmouth to facilitate the workshop, which was hosted by our partner, Falmouth University in the Air Studio sandpit. I invited my original project participants to come along, along with other participants representing academia and Creative Scotland, a support agency working with creatives in the region. During the first part of the day, participants worked in small groups to brainstorm the barriers and challenges presented by social media as well as considering the potential opportunities. Later, working in a larger group, participants clustered their ideas into thematic areas. Emergent themes were fears; access; knowledge; time; engagement; presentation; marketing; and inclusive/democratic. Some themes pointed more to challenges (e.g. fear; time), others more to the opportunities represented by social media (e.g. marketing; inclusive/democratic).

brainstorming

In the second half of the day, participants worked in small break out groups with Camilla Stacey, from Falmouth University, who delivered social media support specific to creative practitioners. During these breakout sessions, participants were able to consider potential solutions to overcoming barriers and embracing opportunities. During the last session, Camilla created a closed group on Facebook for participants to continue their conversations and provide peer support to one another in engaging with the various platforms available online.

 

Feedback from participants towards the end of the day suggested that although coming together to share experiences and knowledge is useful, the next logical step would be to have a more hands on social media workshop during which participants would have the chance to play and engage with social media platforms. I will be working alongside Jane Sutherland at Creative Skills to facilitate this workshop later in the year, which will hopefully help our participants to progress further on their social media journey.

CornCCoB reflections (first published 16/4/2013)

 

I want to sum up my overall reflections from my time in Cornwall carrying out fieldwork on the CornCCoB project.

 

Most (if not all) of my interviewees talked about Cornwall as having a thriving and vibrant arts scene and community. At least three people suggested that you “shake a tree and a bunch of artists will fall out” (and others – words to that effect). Some talked of Cornwall as being over saturated with artists – so many that it becomes impossible for any of them to make a living from it. Indeed many of the artists I spoke to were involved in many other professional roles in order to bring the cash in to support their lives as artists. This is particularly true of those artists who had made the decision to pursue their own artistic journeys as a priority over creating pieces that would be likely to sell. But back to Cornwall – through my various conversations I understand Cornwall to be a place of many contrasts. On the one hand, thriving, colourful and buzzing with year round cultural events, with a population who are genuinely engaged with arts and culture. On the other, seasonal strains that come with the huge influx of tourists who flock to the coastline of Cornwall particularly in the summer. Due to tourism, generally economically viable (even thriving) on the coast, but deprived in many parts of the centre due to the downfall of the mining industry, leaving little other than the fishing and tourism industries to support the area and resulting in heightened unemployment rates. Yet a strong sense of identity pervades in all areas – be it a very localised identity, or a strong sense of Cornishness that sets the locals apart from other parts of the UK. It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that many of those I spoke with feel that part of this identity comes from the unique geographical isolation brought about by living in a Peninsula – being “stuck down here” and remote from other parts of the UK – certainly not always seen as a bad thing, often seen as a strength.

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CornCCoB days 3-14! (first published 15/4/2013)

After the previous two blog posts I became quite busy, and then a few days later moved into a holiday cottage with no wifi. So although I would have loved to update the blog, I was no longer able to. A nice little touch during a research trip all about the value of the web! Anyway, I thought I’d provide a short summary here of the fieldwork. On day 3 I found myself in Redruth, to speak with various artists working from studios in a fantastic space called Krowji: http://www.krowji.co.uk Krowji is an old school building (plus out buildings) which now provides affordable studio space for local artists and craftspeople. It’s an incredibly inspiring place with a very colourful cafe – I ended up here on three separate occasions and I think it’s fair to say it has injecting some much needed vibrancy into a depressed (but beautiful) town which suffered with the decline of the local mining industry.

I got such a range of perspectives from the various people I spoke to here

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CornCCoB day 2 (first published 27/3/2013)

 

Today I’ve spent the day at Falmouth University – Tremough campus meeting up with colleagues here in Falmouth who are either involved in CornCCoB or working on relevant research. First up I talked with Isabelle Rishner who is working on a 2 year project called “Supercrafted” which is exploring how crafts practitioners engage with the web.

Her research forms part of a wider activity at Falmouth, Autonomatic, projects which explore the use of digital manufacturing technologies in the creative process of design: http://www.autonomatic.org.uk/. One fun example is work by Katie Bunnell in which people are able to design their own chinaware via a website: http://www.autochina.me.uk I had a lot of fun with the site.

After a catch up and lunch with colleagues Mike Wilson and Phil Stenton, I was lucky enough to find two resident creative practitioners to interview in the afternoon. First I spoke with a photographer who has built a successful photography agency which also supports recent graduates in giving them experience in industry, as well as working on a number of community projects. I learnt that for this business web is essential as a means of marketing, selling images, engaging with a community of professionals and clients and also receiving completed work from their photographers working all over the globe. This business is lucky enough to already access superfast broadband and is therefore able to transfer large files (and lots of them) very quickly online. In the second interview I spoke with a couple who have developed a forward thinking theatre company with incredibly interactive performances. These performances, which utilise technology in their delivery result in a completely unique experience for each person taking part. Audience members engage with characters on a number of levels including online platforms such as Twitter. I was impressed both in the way that they are using digital tools to enhance the experience of audience members but also how this has resulted in stronger ongoing connections between them and their audience, as well as between members of the audience who had not previously met (often leading to friendships in the offline world). I was a bit disappointed that their production wasn’t happening here and now as I would have loved to experience this for myself. Tomorrow brings another busy day in Redruth. 

CornCCoB day 1 (first published 26/3/2013)

My first day in Cornwall, having spent the previous day traveling and I was straight out for the first two interviews. The first of these was with an artist/print maker living and working rurally in the Penzance area.

We talked about communities of place and interest.

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CornCCoB (first published 22/3/2013)

 

I have some exciting news (well, exciting for me, at least) – I have successfully secured funding for a project which will explore Cornwall’s creative communities and the role of broadband (CornCCoB). I’m off down to Cornwall for 2 weeks to talk with a variety of creative professionals, along with people leading community arts projects and outreach programmes. I’m really looking forward to both learning more about the nature of Cornwall’s creative cultures, and getting a better understanding of the role that broadband can play within this, in enabling creative practitioners and communities to reach out and better network with potential clients and collaborators. I’m also interested in those who do not use the web for their work/activities – what holds people back from engaging with the web? Is there any kind of support which might be welcome? I will be updating this blog throughout the process so please stay tuned to see how the research unfolds.

 

 

Rural Connective series concludes (first published 6/12/2012)

Over the past year I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of a great series of workshops, Rural Connective: http://air.falmouth.ac.uk/research-projects/rural-connective

The workshop series was a partnership between University College Falmouth, dot.rural at University of Aberdeen and BT and funded by the AHRC. The workshops have explored the potential for broadband (and in particular superfast broadband such as that being rolled out by BT in Cornwall) to impact upon life for rural communities and allow better connections and collaborations for those living and working rurally. Across the year I’ve been involved in a number of stimulating discussions and been witness to a range of presentations – everything from the University of the Village project carried out by University College Falmouth and BT: http://air.falmouth.ac.uk/research-projects/university-village, to talks on community art curation, and the use of technology around campfires in Cornwall! 

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