Thursday, 21 July 2011

docfest: RCUK Digital Economy Summer School 2011

A ten strong group of dot.rural PhD students made their way to Lancaster University to take part in the RCUK digital economy summer school, docfest, hosted by HighWire DTC. With a programme of creativity, risk, leadership, collaboration and serendipitous jelly beans there was something in there for everyone.

DAY ONE: 13th July

Day one began with random groups assigned according to jelly beans distributed as everyone entered the impressive Lancaster Institute for Contemporary Arts building on campus.

Prof. Alan Dix began the activities with a creative angle on critiquing ideas. Distinctly bad ideas were thought up by each group, including, custard bricks, ice pokers and spiky cushions. These bad ideas were then swapped between groups and thoroughly assessed to establish the exact properties that them a bad idea. Flipping things round it was then asked what was good about this bad idea. Readopting these good properties the bad idea was promoted as a good idea.
Any other bad ideas in mind? ...Wind-up fridge, self-lubricating floor tiles, door with hinges on all 4 sides, and the worst mesh condoms... now try to think of anything good about them ?!?!?!?!

In his following lecture Alan emphasised the importance of critical assessment, and really asking what makes your own ideas good or bad. The bad ideas are the sparkling points that allow us to think out of the boundaries and they lead to generate new good ideas. Taking this theoretical understanding and putting it together with a practical application makes for a winning combination in the PhD.

"Blame yourself for what you do, but not for what who you are" - Alan Dix.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi from Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a mixture of amusing anecdotes from his own career to highlight the importance of personal, intellectual and professional risk in the creative process. Chris' talk was followed by a disclaimer that HighWire DTC were not promoting anyone take on activities that would result in arrest during their PhD. This was swiftly followed by a reply from Chris that ' Yes, yes, do get arrested'. With this in mind groups began looking at their own PhDs to ask how risky their ideas were. Discussions then looked at opportunities to increase the level of risk in the PhD, creating a fantasy PhD where anything is possible. Despite the light hearted take on this activity it did highlight the importance of standing back and questioning how much you were pushing the boundaries of your ideas. Chris concluded his talk with a video to explain that taking a risk can be valuable where Werner Herzog is eating his shoe. Werner had promised to “eat his shoe” if Errol Morris would ever finish a film. Well, Morris did it and Werner kept the promise concluding that:

"To eat a shoe is a foolish signal, but it was worthwhile and once in a while we should be foolish enough to do things like that. More shoes, more boots, more garlic." - Werner Herzog

Sir Chris Bonington the mountaineer rounded off the afternoon with an inspiring look at leadership and team work. Giving a gripping account of his trials whilst climbing Everest he demonstrated the qualities of good leadership as well as every team member being aware of each others strengths and weaknesses. Enthused and motivated by Sir Chris' tales we left the session to sit in the sun and enjoy a fantastic BBQ.

"True leaders provide opportunities for others rather than trying to grab them for themselves." - Chris Bonington

After dinner thoughts turned to the future as Mark Huijbregts, the worldwide digital director of Saatchi and Saatchi, explored the impact that the individual is having on branding and design, and ultimately how this is changing the digital realm.

DAY TWO: 14th July

Again jelly beans were the order of the day to facilitate serendipitous connections throughout the day. The mornings activities started with an update on the breadth of intriguing research being conducted across the hubs and digital training centres throughout the UK. This was followed by a lecture from an interdisciplinary artist, Jane Prophet who has collaborated across the sciences, arts and computing to produce a diverse range of visual media. Jane highlighted the importance of recognising creativity and different working practices to make multi-disciplinary collaborations successful.

The final activity for the two days drew on all the topics covered and pitched teams against one another against the clock. Each group was issued with a locked box containing instructions for the rest of the afternoon and a key. The twist being that the key did not unlock the box currently owned by a team. A rapid flurry of box swapping began across the room with the fastest team locating their box in only 5secs! Teams then relaxed a little over lunch to create a Haiku of just 17 syllables, producing a mixture of comical and abstract poetry. After refuelling a fast and furious treasure hunt ensued where teams had to answer a combination of mathematical problems whilst searching for hidden locations around the university campus. With some devious and tactical game play being brought into action there were disqualifications and point deductions dished out. However, the final winning group contained none other than one of dot.rural's newest recruits Danny Heptinstall.

Although tiring, the two days were fun filled and it was great to have an opportunity to stand back and take a look at the PhD from a fresh angle. A big thank you to our hosts HighWire, they will be a hard act to follow at next years docfest.

..happy people at docfest...

and the dot.rural delegation:

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Café Connect 10 – Tuesday 12th July, Cannich

The final event brings Café Connect to a close (at least for this year).

Dr Sarah Skerratt’s (dot.rural Associate Investigator and Rural Society Research Team Leader, Scottish Agricultural College) talk was held at the fantastic Bog Cotton Café, on the Cannich Caravan and Camping site.

The talk, entitled ‘Rural resilience: Community connections and technologies for tomorrow’, attracted a strong turnout of 14.

Sarah introduced the concept of ‘resilience’ (the “development and engagement of community resources by community members, through strategic means”) and the role of rural broadband within it.

Tying in nicely with her work on the dot.rural DEAR project, Sarah went on to: present a picture of the current demand for broadband, as driven by UK communities themselves; emphasise the importance for communities to understand and categorise their level of resilience, ultimately influencing it, given the government’s and policymakers’ increasing use of the term.

Sarah also referred to the (former) Commission for Rural Communities’ ‘Mind the Gap: Digital England – a rural perspective’ report: “Currently, the incidence of rural home working is as much as three times greater than for urban areas”.

Here are a few examples of successful community-led broadband projects across the UK, which Sarah mentioned:
- Angus Broadband Co-operative Limited
- The Tegola Project (watch our dot.rural seminar on this, by Dr Andy Dearden, here)
- The Phone Co-operative and the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust

Following this template, Sarah urged communities to state their demand and outline potential benefits when agitating their councillors, quoting the Broadband Delivery UK's plan (to be developed by July 2012).

I finally met Norette Ferns (fellow tweeter, on behalf of SNRNwebsite) in the audience. It was also great to see one lady there after attending the Café Connect in Drumnadrochit the night before – we officially have a groupie!

Sarah’s research normally involves touring Scotland in a camper van for days on end, collecting data. So this, along with her involvement in the Scotland National Rural Network’s Village Halls & Community Buildings Networking event in Birnam, mean she’s no stranger to the Café Connect concept. This all stood her in good stead for the lively discussion session that followed…

- Do/Can communities ‘become’ resilient, or do they start off as resilient? Is it “something a community has, or something they get through fighting?
- Using ‘white space’ technology for rural broadband, i.e. the current trial on the Isle of Bute.
- “Is there a gap between what people want to do/change in their communities, and what they’re actually prepared to do?
- “Online engagement isn’t the only answer for seeding community action – traditional methods (posters, word of mouth etc) are also invaluable which is probably quite a good thing for the communities’ ‘health’.
- Real concerns over the prohibitive cost of satellite broadband provision, and capacity issues as more and more of the community get online.
- Queries over what’s actually possible with high-speed broadband; “what do people do with it?” (linking in with the dot.rural SIRA project’s case study work).
- Concerns over the compatibility and upgrading of hardware to cope with the increasing high-speed broadband provision.
- Expectations of broadband provision, and the differences depending on “where you’ve come from” (if you’re an incomer).
- The increasing focus on ‘remote rural’ areas, but what about the forgotten ‘in between spaces’?
- Issues of capacity/time for effective community engagement; the need for external resource to assist with this.
- The challenges associated with science jargon and the choice of language employed by policymakers and government, i.e. “what does it actually mean – in terms of download speeds etc – to go from, say, 2 to 4 Mbps?

Special thanks goes to Fay Jones (the Cannich champion), Ian, Edward and Robbie for their contributions to the debate.

So, after 10 events, in 10 communities, in 10 days, what’s the verdict? I’m exhausted but it’s definitely been worth it. We’ve had 6 (out of the 10) undoubted successes, with between 13 and 24 people attending (that’s more than 16% of the local population in some cases!).

And BIG thanks to Aileen for booking the (TEN!) ferries and the B&Bs, and to Mat for being 'chief bannerstand setter-upper' and for driving most of the mammoth 1429 miles!

What’s next? I’ll be evaluating the pilot and composing a report shortly for dot.rural and the Scottish Government (i.e. the funders!). After that… hopefully Café Connect will be back next year! In the mean time, please feel free to comment on any of the blog posts.

Claire *collapses*

p.s. here’s a little something for Rene, and the rest of the Digital Conservation project team, to appreciate…

Monday, 18 July 2011

Café Connect 9 – Monday 11th July, Drumnadrochit

9 down, 1 to go and we’re flagging… just a tad! (Who’s idea was it to do 10 events in 10 days, across Scotland, again?!)

Leaving Eskdalemuir (and the trauma of last night’s feathery casualty) behind, we headed north to Drumnadrochit. Seven hours later, we’d arrived along the banks of Loch Ness.

The Drumnadrochit champion and Centre Co-ordinator at the Craigmonie Centre, Fran Davidson, gave us a quick tour of the Glen Urquhart High School (integrated with the community centre) before setting up.

Fran did a super job maximising the attendance from around the Loch, using both traditional and social media tools. She even targeted the local MSPs, including Danny Alexander. Unfortunately none of the politicians invited could make it on the night.

Dr Lizzy Tait’s (dot.rural Impact Assessment Research Fellow) thought-provoking talk, entitled ‘The Power of Social Media: Transformational tweeting or devaluation of democracy?’ pulled in the crowds at the Craigmonie Centre: 18 people to be precise.

In the true spirit of the night’s proceedings, I was tweeting throughout, incorporating the central element of social media…

''social media is just 1 contributing factor, in a mesh of interactions, in recent political revolutions'' #CafeConnect

In a political bubble? Does social media re-enforce political beliefs, or broaden them? #CafeConnect

Tonight's 'social media' #CafeConnect @theSNP's are most active party with social media...

No one in tonight's 'social media' #CafeConnect audience is a member of a political party

Social networking accounts for approx 1/4 of all time spent online... #CafeConnect

if a political candidate's on twitter, r u more likely to become politically engaged with their party/agenda? #CafeConnect

Using Internet techs to help promote political views is nothing new... #CafeConnect

RT @dannyalexander just about to kick off with drumnadrochit #CafeConnect -shame you couldnt make it!

just about to kick off with drumnadrochit #CafeConnect follow our live tweets!

Lizzy’s talk stimulated great debate from the audience, including…
- Within the NHS, the (almost) instantaneous sharing of information raises challenges surrounding information accuracy and privacy.
- Two worlds colliding with the increasing impact of social media on mainstream, traditional media: “a good supplement but not a full replacement”.
- The possibility of social media replacing newspapers, but not journalists. Without these, you lose some level of political analysis.
- Twitter as a signpost, a gateway; “a blog without a twitter feed is like having a restaurant without a sign”.
- Political parties have been slow in adopting social media and haven’t used it as intended, i.e. to distribute small bits of information, quickly.
- The dangers of politicians abusing or exploiting demographic information contained within social media networks.
- NodeXL: A network analysis software tool which doesn’t collect demographic information… yet.
- Social media in rural areas has become the ‘hub’ for up-to-date, accurate information in dynamic situations such as school closures etc.
- The influence of social media: “a network is not proportional to the number of people following you, but the number of people following them…
- The importance of political parties engaging people, through social media, on a local, not just a national, level.
- Concerns over accessibility and digital exclusion, with new technologies possibly not being able to reach everyone, everywhere (due to cost or distance).
- The contrast between tools such as Facebook (more private? requiring a ‘real life’ interaction first?) and Twitter (the opposite?).
- Social media (about free will, autonomy, individuals) vs. political parties hierarchical organisations): does the mass adoption of social media pave the way for more independent politicians?
- The impact of social media when raising awareness about large companies and revolutions (are these just protests, without inducing actual change?).
- The power of the 'retweet' (RT)!
- Political institutions are built on an old model of trust, and the ability to gain public trust has changed through social media. At what point does a regular tweeter become a ‘politician’? e.g. Ben Goldacre, creating ‘policy’ through discussions with ‘followers’.
- Social media as “profoundly democratic”, with “my tweet being just as valid as the next persons”.
- “The whole point of social media is the conversation.
- The positive, ‘serendipitous effect’ of social media: perhaps you experience an awkward, and seemingly pointless introduction to social media, but then find a positive and relevant use for it.
- The simultaneous engagement between TV (old media) and social media e.g. #bbcqt
- Is social media making democracy more, or less, robust? Well that depends on what you mean by ‘democracy’…

Finally, special thanks go to the following for great contributions to the night's discussions: Rene Looper, Miles Mack (a GP from Dingwall), Rab Gordon, and Morag from the Enterprise North East Trust.

One left: Cannich tomorrow. I can’t believe the end is in sight.


Café Connect 8 – Sunday 10th July, Eskdalemuir

Day 8 and its just a short drive from New Galloway to Eskdalemuir for the next instalment of Café Connect.

Eskdalemuir has one big claim to fame: its home to the first Tibetan Buddhist temple in the West… The Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre.

Our hosts for the evening, the Upper Eskdale Develeopment Group (UEDG), coordinated a petition, ultimately convincing the council to sell the Old School (or ‘Hub’) to the community last year… for the bargain price of £1! The UEDG are now busy making plans and writing funding proposals to redevelop and extend the Hub.

At the venue (the Hub, not the temple!) we saw a great turnout (16 people) as the UEDG rallied around, fully supporting Café Connect.

Dr Advaith Siddharthan’s (dot.rural Natural Resource Conservation and Computing Science Associate Investigator) talk, entitled ‘Citizen Science: Conservation research is in your hands’, began with a light introduction to the world of citizen science (‘Citizen’ referring to the element of democracy and participation).

Advaith named GalaxyZoo as a popular example of a well-established citizen science project, utilising crowd sourcing.

He went on to point out that the history of Computing Science mirrors that of Citizen Science, spanning Distributed Computing to Brain Sourcing/Human Computation (the technology behind e-Science).

It seems that the field of Natural Resource Conservation has a long history of public participation, e.g. the activities of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Advaith’s talk described dot.rural’s Digital Conservation project, involving the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust's Bee Watch, asking:
- How can we motivate people to engage with Bumble Bee conservation?
- How do we sustain this motivation? Through user-specific feedback, online games, creating online communities etc.
- Is such a project scalable?

Advaith’s interactive ‘identify the Bumble Bee’ exercise sparked some lively comments: “Its great just to know there are so many different types!”.

I couldn’t help wondering why I, and the rest of the University’s Public Engagement with Science Unit, haven’t been more actively involved in this project – the fit seems obvious. Also, I now have a plan to unlock some Partnership Resource funding and launch a schools competition around Bumble Bee conservation!

A summary of the lively discussions that followed the talk…
- The ‘hooks’ for motivating people are, essentially, communicating and understanding the life-changing impact of not acting and not conserving species, “getting people early on in life”, and communicating the final research outputs back to the public(s).
- Tales of being involved in AuroraWatch – a system, which alerts members, enables sharing of photographs, and (crucially) feeds back to users after recent activity – and their successful, personal and community-building approach: “The more we engage with them, the more they engage with us”.
- Awareness of the current Bugs in Gardens Dumfries and Galloway project whereby members of the public are encouraged to record the bugs they find in their gardens.
- The wildlife recording exhibition about to open at the Tullie House Museum, Cumbria – “an old fashioned type of engagement”.
- The need for people to not just collect data, but also, to ask questions! i.e. the Wild About Britain forum - an online community of over 40,000 members.
- Awareness of the Woodland Trust’s management schemes.
- The role of narrative and art in getting children involved in conservation; “don’t think of this as a science”, “perhaps its part of the wider learning experience”, tying in with Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. In which case, who’s responsibility is this? Is there a need for a whole new cohort to deliver such engagement?
- Apply the methods and techniques young children use when engaging with each other, virtually, to motivating people to do conservation and citizen science.
- Queries over “where the science in citizen science is”.
- Questions surrounding image-recognition technology: Although not the goal of citizen science, if a computer can recognise an image of a bee, or a bird, automatically, where’s the need for an enthusiastic and engaged public?

Big thanks to Jock Miller, Nancy Chinnery and the rest of the team for the fanstatic hosting (and cakes!)…

It was unfortunate that the Eskdalemuir champion, Nick Jennings (Chairman, UEDG), was unable to make it due to illness. Nick did a great job in the run up to Café Connect, spreading the word. As it turns out, his marketing strategy was superbly targeted, with a whole bunch of enthusiastic and professional ecologists in the audience!

Some members of tonight’s audience included…
- Teresa (Statistical Ecologist) and Mustafa from the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (find them on Facebook here).
- Fiona Russell (Ph.D. researcher at Glasgow University) working in the field of Eco-Criticism and Eco-Poetry!
- Chris Miles (Scottish Natural Heritage Area Manager for Dumfries and Galloway).
- Tim (Woodland Sites Manager, the Borders Forest Trust).

On the road back to the B&B in Langholm – with a novel alternative to wifi (wireless Internet signal from the mains Earth!) – we managed to dodge two birds, a hare and a fox… unfortunately, we couldn’t miss the final obstacle; a barn owl, frozen in the headlights. If only we had some of these


Café Connect 7 – Saturday 9th July, New Galloway

Another early start and another ferry (this time Craignure-Oban) was followed by a long drive down south.

We headed to Kitty’s Tearoom for a pre-Café Connect dinner – if you’re looking for the best traditional tearoom in the UK, this is it.

En-route we spotted the Galloway Kite Trail. Something for me to report back to Dr Rene van der Wal (dot.rural Natural Resource Conservation theme Lead) for the Red Kite project…

Today’s venue? The fantastic CatStrand ("contemporary performance and meeting space"), New Galloway…

Prof Dave Godden (dot.rural Healthcare theme Lead and Co-Director of the Centre for Rural Health, University of Aberdeen) delivered his talk entitled ‘Rural Emergencies: New technologies to aid First Responders’, linking in with our MIME (Managing Information in Medical Emergencies) project.

Quite appropriately, the audience included a Mountain Rescuer and two First Responders.

Dave outlined the changing landscape of healthcare providers, emphasising that its dot.rural (and other research centres) who strive to develop new technologies but it’s the policymakers who, ultimately, decipher the extent of their uptake.

The technology priorities to assist the first person on the scene of an accident: design a device to help decision support in real-time; use the device to monitor the patient’s status whilst being transferred; use the device to accurately collate, conserve and forward the ‘information trail’ gathered over the whole rescue period (using Natural Language Generation). In practice, the design of such a device raises issues of weight, portability and battery life, amongst others.

Dave's 'demo'…

The discussions that followed included…
- From the research point of view, dot.rural are thinking ~10-15 years ahead when designing such technologies.
- In any emergency, there’s a whole chain of people involved during the patient’s transfer. Thus, inconsistencies and mis-information in the information trail are inevitable. Therefore, the aim is to improve on the paper and pencil system currently used, often completed after the event, while considering environment-specific factors such as noisy, dangerous and wet scenarios.
- Accounts from the audience on the value of technology to support First Responders: “there are people who would be more likely to be first responders if some sort of tech was available to support”. Followed by caution from Dave over creating a false sense of security, with the need for basic skills and training not to be replaced.
- Concerns over signal coverage in remote and rural areas and the dependency of such devices on infrastructure.
- Issues of knowing how much data to send on to the respective hospital when monitoring the patient and the impact on information flow.
- Worries over whether the stick-on monitoring pads interfere with a defibrillator and can cope with exceptionally hairy people (they can!).
- Emphasis on the need for training, to support the uptake of devices, whatever the technology.
- Queries over the testing the device; Simulated data is being used in the R&D phase, before being used on real patients - ultimately, real data-sets are required.
- In paperless scenarios where First Responders are asked to justify their advice or actions, there could be a place for new technologies to help.
- Currently, there’s no formal feedback process so, once the patient has arrived at the hospital, mountain rescue teams/First Responders are not updated on their progress or the final outcome. Perhaps new technologies could be used to relay what this information, especially for future training purposes.

This was Dave’s last ever, public talk before retiring from academic and clinical work, later this month. As he embraces retirement and pens his long-awaited first novel, keep your eyes peeled for D. Godden on the shelves of all good book shops…


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Café Connect 6 – Friday 8th July, Isle of Mull

Reluctantly leaving Knoydart I headed south to Lochaline to catch another ferry (who’s counting?) to Fishnish, Isle of Mull…

Last year, the Ulva School Community Association successfully campaigned to save the community’s only remaining communal asset – Ulva Primary School.

The school pupils totalled 4 last year, this year its 8. The numbers temporarily swelled when it became our next, and undoubtedly the most colourful, Café Connect venue for the night…

…with 18 people attending! Note that the USCA area of Mull has a population of just 110.

The Ulva champion, Carolyne Charrington (Vice Convenor, Ulva School Community Association) originally approached us to host a Café Connect and laid all the groundwork. With Carolyne unable to make it on the night, she passed the baton to Helen Mackay (Convenor, Ulva School Community Association). Helen did a fantastic job in spreading the word, going all out to make the night a success; she made dedicated phone calls to households in the community, stopped people in the street, posted the flyers and even bagged a slot on Oban FM!

Tonight’s speaker was Dr Alasdair Mort (dot.rural Healthcare Research Fellow, Centre for Rural Health, University of Aberdeen) delivering ‘Rural Pain Relief: A digital dose’. The talk linked in with our TOPS (Technology to support Older adults Personal and Social interaction) Healthcare project, and touched on areas such as rural well-being, comfort and friendship.

Alasdair focused on the issues surrounding the ageing populations of rural areas, the management of chronic conditions and that of associated chronic pain (defined as lasting for more than 3 months). It is projected that in 2030, 32% of people will be over 65 years old in the Argyll and Bute area (exceeding the UK average) and thus impacting the challenges of living with a chronic condition.

Alasdair went on to describe that current state of telehealth, telecare and telemedicine, with the possible reduction in face-to-face personal and social interaction.

A quick break, and just time to sample the fantastic rock cakes and the lemoniest lemon drizzle I’ve ever eaten…

From a sample of cake, to a sample of the discussions that emerged…
- Technologies, like those being developed under the TOPS project, “can’t bring people physically closer, but may make them better connected”.
- Concerns over new technologies diverting funding from other medical service provision, culminating in the loss of care.
- Concerns over the rising costs of fuel when making journeys to/from disperse communities for essential, medical reasons.
- The importance of options: if people choose to use technology to support their levels of personal and social interaction in the management of their chronic pain, then this should be available but is not intended to replace any face-to-face interaction currently available.
- The Scottish Government completed an initiative about 10 years ago, delivering computing hardware (a computer, printer and webcam), free Internet access for 1 year (later extended to 3 years), and dedicated training workshops to every household in the area.
- ‘A digital dose’ is really referring to “methods of communication, not pain relief itself”.
- The real demand for remote consultations and diagnoses (supported by new technologies), and promising invaluable reassurance in real-time. This local need links in with another of our Healthcare projects (phase 2) .
- The value in digital pain diaries with a very simple GUI (perhaps on a telephone).

After rescuing the Primary School, the USCA are invigorated, using the school, in place of a village hall, to the max for all sorts of events and workshops.

If you fancy sampling some of their genuine community ‘togetherness’, pop along to the USCA Summer Fete on August 7th. But a word of warning – once there, you might not want to leave!

The evening concluded with a bizarre experience in the Craignure Inn; a ‘push the bottle’ competition which Mat and Alasdair narrowly lost to the locals…


p.s. Did you catch our previous blog post (Café Connect 5 – Knoydart) on the front page of the Ruralworkspace Daily?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Café Connect 5 – Thursday 7th July, Knoydart

We made our way from Oban to Mallaig en-route to the next stop, Knoydart. Meanwhile, the Stornoway black pudding safely on its way back to Aberdeen, accompanied by Ruth, to be refrigerated.

The Lonely Planet describes Knoydart as “the only sizable area in Britain that remains inaccessible to the motor car… No road penetrates this wilderness of rugged hills – Inverie, its sole village can only be reached by [Bruce’s!] ferry from Mallaig, or on foot (a tough 16-mile hike)” so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

There’s no denying it; Inverie, Knoydart is a fantastic place. I almost don’t want to tell you about it because I’m definitely coming back. Its the remoteness and the friendly locals that make it so special.

To top it off, we stayed at the Gathering, a superb B&B ‘with a difference’… and with Internet connection to rival Aberdeen City, despite the (almost) non-existent mobile phone coverage.

The Knoydart Café Connect champion, Davie Newton (Local Development Officer, Knoydart Foundation) had done a superb job beforehand spreading the word across the peninsula, and beyond with attendees making a dedicated overnight trip from across the water on the Isle of Eigg!

Prof Claire Wallace (dot.rural Enterprise & Culture theme Lead and newly appointed Co-Vice Principal of Research and Knowledge Exchange, University of Aberdeen) was there to deliver her talk, entitled ‘Rural Futures: people + business + technology = sustainability’, to a strong turnout of 13 (population just 120 people). This meant the wonderful Knoydart Tearoom and Pottery was almost at full capacity!

Claire set the scene with an overview of our Enterprise & Culture projects: SIRA, CURIOS and ASSURE. CURIOS, and a possible extension to it – a whole new dot.rural project! – became the main focus of the 90-minute discussion that followed.

A sample of some of the discussions…
- Economic and copyright queries over ‘ownership’ of people’s memories.
- Demand to extend projects like CURIOS, beyond a family history recording tool of ‘who married who’, linking into a bigger historical (and possibly an agricultural and land use) context… “Not just for community history, but for community futures”.
- Questions over the quality of information, and the filtering of what’s input into such databases, drawing parallels with the unmoderated world of Wikipedia.
- How does the technology behind such databases distinguish between, say, 100 people of the same name?
- The real need to search within, and also between, community databases and records, with a possible temporal element incorporated into the interface.
- A need to map community initiatives and infrastructure schemes (sewerage, electricity, broadband etc) to facilitate full-scale knowledge sharing across the UK, and in Europe.

The ‘quote of the evening’ has to go to Alex Boden for “we want to turn our resources into cash”, demonstrating the need for a new, effective community business model, in a broader sense…
- There are only 3 indigenous people currently left on Eigg.
- The period of 1900-1970 local history is rapidly disappearing. There’s a desperate need to "capture this before it disappears".
- How can technology deliver new ways of creating a sustainable economy, particularly outside of the (limited) tourist season?
- Similarities with technologies being developed for walking tours on Eigg, with those presented at the Digital Futures 2011 conference and off-the-shelf applications.
- Concerns over tech-supported walking guides reducing the social contact between locals and tourists, with a potentially negative impact.
- The project delivering ~6 MB broadband to 40 subscribers on Eigg for ~£15 per month (with a BT backhaul). This will be delivering connectivity to the Isle of Muck next week (July 2011). How does this compare to the current provision in Knoydart? £43 per month for 1 MB.
- Practical issues experienced with LEADER project and funding applications.

Afterwards, it was great to chat with Isla and Rhona (Knoydart Tearoom and Pottery) about life in Knoydart, the role of Facebook in the community and its impact on their business… and the infamous New Year democratic discos!

Thanks to Isla and Rhona for opening up late, experimenting with this new format and for putting on a special ‘Café Connect menu’, and big thanks to Davie.

With the obvious successes of Ravenspoint and Knoydart under our belt, we’re now at the halfway point: 5 down, 5 to go.


Monday, 11 July 2011

Café Connect 4 – Wednesday 6th July, Isle of Barra

Leaving the peat bogs of Lewis behind, I headed south via the stunning beaches of Harris, to catch the first of three ferries for the day (Leverburgh - Bernerary) with no contingency built into the schedule…

…and then through North and South Uist to catch the second ferry (Eriskay –Ardmhor, Barra). When checking-in at Eriskay I noticed a local flyer advertising the ‘Mobile Chippy Bus’. Genius.

Once on, I spotted some 'Flexible Integrated Transport Services' in action! The Grillburger van man was distributing his deliveries to other (non-food business) drivers on the ferry, for wider circulation afterwards.

On the ferry some eager passengers pointed out basking sharks – with the Captain halting the ferry mid-crossing, allowing them to pass – and later, a group of seals.

Once on Barra, and with minutes to spare, there was no time to hop over to Kisimul Castle…

… before locating the elusive ‘Youth Café’ hidden within the Community Hall and the not-so-elusive speaker, Ruth Wilson (dot.rural Enterprise & Culture Postgraduate Researcher).

The champion, Murdo, eventually located the keys to the Hall and Café Connect number 4 got underway.

Unfortunately Ruth delivered her talk, entitled ‘Facebook and the Fate of Barra: The digital evolution of social life on a small island’, to one of our smaller audiences – in the rural locations we’re reminded that it really is all about quality not quantity – but stimulated, undoubtedly, the most interactive and in-depth discussion to follow a talk.

Perhaps it was the earlier start time (all other Café Connects commenced at 7 pm, unrestricted by the ferry timetables), or that such an initiative is new to Castlebay, or the fact that the social media networks weren’t fully utilised locally (i.e. the Siar FM Facebook page) beforehand...

With fantastic input from two members of the audience, Jane and Peter, the following points were raised during the 90-minute discussion:
- The impact of the Internet in the media, e.g. the Pope’s first Tweet.
- “Whatever wonderful things the Internet might bring, a hug is not one of them.
- Isolation, community and well being all supported (or not) through social media platforms such as Facebook.
- The different uses of social media in remote and rural areas, compared with towns and cities, and its affect in weakening/strengthening community.
- Parallels with the introduction of previous communication methods (such as the telegram, the telephone…) receiving similar receptions.
- The blurring of social lives; where does one end (‘real’ friendship) and the other (online relationships) being?
- Examples of local uses of Facebook included playing scrabble with relatives living in other places, and connecting with other, similar businesses (in this case a network of proofreaders).
- Those living on Barra not really considering themselves as ‘remote’.

It was also great to learn that Barra boasts an avid group of ‘Bumble Bee counters’ (something which may be of particular relevance to Dr Rene van der Wal and our Bumble Bee, Natural Resource Conservation project) and the suggestion to explore potential collaborations with the Co-operative.

From these discussions with real end users, there’s no doubt that Ruth’s research has been actively shaped.

It already appears that the audience turnout is directly dependent on the efforts of the community champions, and is inversely linked to the local population size; the fewer people in the community, the stronger the community networks and thus, the greater the demand and demonstrable support for such initiatives. After today’s Café Connect, it also seems that a smaller audience fosters more engaging, and multi-way, discussions.

So, what next? Another ferry! We boarded the Castlebay-Oban ferry and once we’d set sail, we were closely tailed by a group of playful dolphins.

How much can you squeeze into one day? 226 miles, three ferries and a Café Connect.


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Café Connect 3 – Tuesday 5th July, Isle of Lewis

Tuesday kicked off with an early-morning drive from Bonar Bridge to Ullapool in time for the ferry to Stornoway and to meet up with tonight’s speaker, Dr David Corsar (dot.rural Computing Science Research Fellow).

Once in the Outer Hebrides (for the first time!) we popped in to the famous Charles MacLeod butchers for a Stornoway black pudding (or 3!)…

…ticked off another stone circle at Callanish and went into the blackhouse at Arnol… and came out smelling like a kipper!

Thought for the day: Forget me, more importantly, how long can a black pudding survive on the road?!

The Ravenspoint Café Connect community champion – John Randall (Chairman, Co-Chomunn na Pairc, the Pairc Community Co-operative) – cleverly tied in our talk date with the launch of the brand-new extension to the Ravenspoint Community Café.

The café, funded by Big Lottery Fund, HIE and CnES, is the latest addition to the Co-Chomunn na Pairc community enterprise. Locals and tourists can also find the Ravenspoint community shop, museum, archive and hostel on site.

The community turned out in full force, supporting John, the new café extension and the Café Connect pilot. During the speeches and obligatory ceremonial ribbon-cutting…

…the supporters were literally queuing out of every doorway.

David delivered his talk on ‘Driving Rural Transport: Mainland technologies for a small island?’ to a 24-strong audience!

David introduced the two dot.rural Accessibility & Mobilities projects, FITS and IRP, proposing that the Q&A session that followed be used to discuss the demand for, and applicability of, such initiatives within the context of island communities.

Tonight’s Café Connect turned out to be our most successful one yet. The audience was sizable – given these are all taking place in remote and/or rural communities – and demographically varied. Attendees included Donnie Morrison (Director of Co-Chomunn na Pairc, the Pairc Community Co-operative and HIE employee), Helen (Community Development Officer) and Malcolm Burr (Chief Executive of the Western Isles Council).

The Q&A session prompted lively discussion and lots of comments for me to feedback to the dot.rural researchers, potentially shaping the research. The venue (and the views!) was superb and there was a real sense of occasion.

A summary of the discussions…
- Reassessing the community bus use (expertly spotted beforehand by David, parked outside) which is currently estimated to be in use ~<5% of the time!
- Utilising the current hospital transport provision to maximum effect
- Concerns over the cost of fuel and the socio-economic impact on rural transport services
- The idea of having one ‘shared’ car per village, or even investigating what the optimal number of shared cars per village would be.
- The tensions of cheapened transport provision vs rural development and the potential (negative) socio-economic impact, e.g. free/subsidised transport to supermarkets in larger villages and towns reducing spend in community shops
- Looking into the introduction of ‘driver incentives’ (“driver is key”) when relying on goodwill is not sustainable.
- An idea of the timescales involved when tailoring such systems to each individual community.
- Issues over the legalities and ethics associated with FITS-type schemes and wider concerns for the ‘disengaged’, those who are not computer literate or who chose not to be digitally involved.

One member of the audience, who may turn up at Lizzy Tait’s ‘Power of Social Media’ Café Connect in Drumnadrochit on Monday 11th July, recorded the audio of David’s talk…

I managed to get online briefly (if I lived in the Outer Hebrides I don’t think I could ‘live’ without an iPhone) and finally tweet.

Unwinding over a couple of bottles of Celtic Black Ale back at the spotless Loch Erisort Inn, I knew that, if nothing else, the Café Connect principle has been proven tonight through this success at Ravenspoint.

Over the Café Connect series, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the success of such a pilot, and any follow-on initiatives, hinges on the champion; their place within the local community, the connections they have and their efforts invested in promoting the event locally beforehand. John has been an absolute star.

I’ll definitely be back. If not to stay in the Ravenspoint Hostel and (re!)sample the fantastic cupcakes, then to catch-up with John.

What’s the most impressive part of the evening? Being privileged enough to see such a focused and community-spirited group of people working together towards common goals.

Sadly there’s no time to see the looms weaving Harris Tweed with this gruelling schedule. Tomorrow, three ferries, a Café Connect in Castlebay and a 5.30 am start to check out the Harris beaches all lie in store. Yawn.