As a social scientist carrying out research in the broad field of the Digital Economy, I’m always looking for the interesting social angles in the areas that we explore. My research is ultimately about the impact that broadband (or its applications) can have on rural businesses – so on the surface it looks more to the economy than the dynamics of social life in the countryside. But as soon as you start talking to people about these issues, you’re immediately reminded of the bigger picture. As individuals, we don’t fully segregate the different aspects of our lives. We define ourselves loosely (and fluidly) around a set of identities along with other attributes – particularly those relating to our personalities, interests and values.
Once a year, the people at North East Open Studios organise NEOS week – a huge event that spans the whole of the North East of Scotland. This year, NEOS is running from Saturday 15th to Sunday 23rd September. I urge anyone with even a passing interest in the Arts to grab a NEOS catalogue, and visit a handful of the exhibitions. Check out the PDF of the catalogue here: http://northeastopenstudios.co.uk/downloads/2012/neos12.pdf – any of the listed locations should have catalogues available.
As part of the development of the Creative Industries focus of the SIRA project, I’ve been driving around Aberdeenshire, visiting some of the more rural NEOS open studios. Driving around the countryside and seeing the little yellow NEOS signs pointing you to this steading or that village hall, you get a real sense of the richness of artistic activity that goes on in this part of Scotland.
Yesterday I set off to do some interviewing for the SIRA project. I had two people to interview – a guy who does freelance sound and light engineering and a radio presenter for a well-known radio station (you may know him or his programme, but I’m protecting anonymity). Both interviews were great and I learnt a lot about the issues facing creative rural businesses who can’t access broadband. The radio presenter is concerned with rural affairs and records (sometimes even presents the live show) on location in rural areas. When out and about he can usually find a spot to get a decent wifi connection with his dongle (I’m afraid I always feel silly typing/saying that). But at home, where he does a good deal of his producing and editing, broadband is minimal – resulting in problems around transferring large high-quality audio files to his colleagues.
Our sound and light engineer lives in a rural and quite isolated location, 8 miles from a small rural community (see image above). He lives in a cottage surrounded by gorse hills and purple heather. He feels totally immersed in the nature there (“co-existence”) and finds this a good way to work creatively with peace and quiet and few distractions.
I am involved in a knowledge exchange programme comprising a series of workshops called Rural Connective http://air.falmouth.ac.uk/research-projects/rural-connective – a collaboration between BT, dot.rural at University of Aberdeen and University College Falmouth. This post documents experiences of one of these workshops. The workshop was based in a great location – a lovely rustic pub in St. Agnes – a gorgeous fishing village in Cornwall.
The workshop explored how the introduction of superfast broadband to communities in Cornwall is impacting on various aspects of community life. There were some presentations, including a fascinating project called University of the Village http://air.falmouth.ac.uk/research-projects/university-village which worked with a community in the very pub we were working in, to make their own film about their village and community. The project outcomes were quite telling in how involving people in activities around what they identify with is a brilliant way to engage people with digital technologies. I came away from the workshop brimming with ideas and am really looking forward to the next one. Here’s a picture of me with some dot.rural chums – Professor John Farrington, the director of our research hub (http://www.abdn.ac.uk/cops/people/profiles/j.farrington), Dr. Lizzy Tait – who researches impact of technologies and digital political participation (http://www.dotrural.ac.uk/user/78) and Dr. David Beel who is researching cultural participation in rural communities (http://www.dotrural.ac.uk/user/125).
I am working on a project called Satellite Internet for Rural Access (or SIRA). This project explores the impact that broadband (and a lack of) has for rural businesses in the UK. The project is founded on the philosophy that the rural economy not only needs but deserves access to broadband in order to compete with other businesses in the UK and worldwide.
I’d like to tell you a bit more about the ASSURE project. For rural businesses in the UK networking is (and always has been) really important. Many rural businesses are isolated – from clients, from other local businesses and from the hub of activity around their particular sector (which is often in more urban environments). Rural businesses need these links in order to overcome the problems they face due to rurality – ironically rurality itself makes it harder to form and maintain such connections. Stuart Burgess, Prime Minister’s Rural Advocate reported in 2008 that rural businesses are failing to work together to tackle the distinctively rural obstacles that they face. At dot.rural we wanted to carry out research which could help rural businesses to better network with one another. The ASSURE project does just that through exploring the potential of semantic matchmaking and intelligent agent technologies to intelligently enhance networking for rural businesses. We’re working in partnership with Scottish Enterprise http://www.scottish-enterprise.com/ who have put us together with a number of rural businesses/entrepreneurs who are keen to widen their networks.
In a nutshell, the project does two things – firstly strengthening our understandings of networking for rural businesses – how important is networking? How do rural businesses network – both traditionally and in online environments? Secondly we are designing an online networking tool in participation with users. We are working with a user group of 15 rural businesses. We’ve already carried out a baseline interview study in which I interviewed each of the business people in order to understand their approach to networking and their needs/expectations from a business networking site. This user group will work closely with us to guide the design of the site. As well as featuring typical online networking tools (e.g. discussion area, private messaging) the site will also feature semantic matchmaking and intelligent agents – semantic matchmaking is a computing science approach for finding connections between materials which are semantically related, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_matching Intelligent agents are entities which work towards finding solutions to given goals, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_agent. In the case of this research, an agent might find relevant connections between given users of a networking site, using criteria they have submitted to describe their networking and business needs.