Members of the public across Scotland were invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh to take part in a national inquiry into the changing role of digital technology and how everyone can share in the benefits of the digital society.
You can read the Royal Society of Edinburgh interim report on Digital Participation here.
As part of the work we are doing in Scotland, Talk About Local responded to the report and you can read our response below.
In what is a good report, the Royal Society has missed a set of basic, popular internet skills, widespread in England and Wales* that help people find a simple voice online for their community that they own and run. These skills are as simple as using in a community context a wordpress.com blog, creating a Facebook page or a twitter stream.
UK Online centres in the UK since 2009 have worked with trainers Talk About Local to show local people how to create a basic web presence for their hamlet, village, suburb or town. This could be of huge benefit in Scotland, which seems to be lagging behind the rest of the UK.
Across England, Wales and to some extent Ireland we see an explosion of grass roots local websites, twitter feeds and Facebook pages that create engaging and vibrant voices online for their place. People use simple internet skills to create vibrant, charismatic, useful voices that in time appear prominently in Google and define their community to a wider world. Such web presences can also build bridging and bonding social capital and improve democratic voice. Yet, outside major urban areas Scotland’s communities don’t present well online to people searching for information about them.
For Scottish communities there are economic, democratic and social incentives to improve their online presence.
Scotland’s tourist industry makes it doubly important for a community to present well online in a way that shows local character and colour. The internet is critical for tourism and investment promotion. Tourism accounts for 3% of Scotland’s economic output, sustaining 200,000 jobs with tourist spending averaging at £4bn per year. Visit Scotland research for 2011/12 shows that 64% of visitors booked accommodation online before travelling, and even more will have researched online without booking.
How a place presents itself online will be important to its success as a destination. New academic research suggests that tourist destination websites should present a true flavour of the destination, not seek to adapt to the cultural norms of the tourists you are trying to attract. So to attract American tourists, don’t try to be American on the website nor price in dollars, nor use American idioms – be Scottish instead and show the life and vitality of your place. Internet audiences have also wised up to vacuous marketing-led brochure ware. People seek and authenticity of a local voice that brings out the character and potential.
With the demise of local papers in many areas and the almost uniquely Scottish position of local papers having no web presence, community websites can become an important hub for local news and events. Because of their highly local focus they can also be a valuable resource for local authorities, government agencies & emergency services who can use the sites to provide information to targeted areas.
Dunfermline-based Carnegie UK Trust has funded a major philanthropic research project, ‘Neighbourhood News’ to explore the potential of local websites in democratic accountability. Alan Rusbridger described work on local sites as ‘the future of news ’. New research is emerging from Universities of Westminster and Cardiff on the impact of local websites, pages etc on local accountability and democracy .
Motivation and social capital
The most frequently cited reason for people not getting online is broadly ‘no interest, nothing for me there’. Local websites can provide an immediate pool of locally relevant information for people who are being shown the advantages of being online. A local website can engage and empower community members of all ages and can become a valuable support network for community action, creating bridging and bonding social capital. From collective purchasing of heating oil to gain a discounted price, through to swapping of home-grown fruit and vegetables across the community, through to hard fought local campaigns.
There are some strong examples of local sites in Scotland, we choose a selection here – the opportunity is to work with local people to create more.
My Turriff , which covers the small town of Turriff (pop 5,700 (in the wider district)) in Aberdeenshire, for example can have many hundreds of visitors a day. Although there is a well established local paper, there is no other local news website for Turriff so visitors to the My Turriff site can be classed as a new market, visitors have not swapped from the local paper or other website, they are visiting My Turriff because it is there for the community and provides a level of service.
A Gurn from Nurn
The Gurn from Nurn site covers the old county of Nairnshire. The site is as well respected and known in the local community as the Nairnshire Telegraph. Only being founded in 2005, the Gurn can’t boast the 100 years of publishing history of the Nairnshire Telegraph but the site gets around 1000 unique visitors each day. There is a conscious decision by the Gurn to not use Facebook to as a platform or to promote content on there. While there is some traffic generated from other people sharing on Facebook most of their visitors are purely from the web.
Greener Leith was founded in 2006 and is now a registered charity with an open membership that aims to promote local community engagement, better public spaces and sustainable development in Leith, Scotland. The site run by a small team of volunteers, covers local news, planning, events and calls to action with a healthy 5000 visitors a month.
As well as managing and developing a community news website, the organisation also engages in other projects – these includes active travel promotion, practical public space improvement projects and the development of a community owned wind energy project.
Simple, effective, proven action
Talk About Local’s practical experience on the ground in Scotland suggests that there is a huge opportunity to support communities in basic internet skills to improve radically their online face to the world. There are a number of routes to achieve this.
Our model would be a programme of work to support local trainers in community internet access points across Scotland, from our Aberdeenshire office – giving local trainers the skills and confidence to work with local people in their communities to create local sites, pages etc. Talk About Local could deliver training remotely to local trainers in their community access points via webinars, using proven techniques we have deployed all over the UK and internationally as far afield as Uganda, Borneo and Mexico. It’s a model we have deployed in 200 deprived and isolated english communities. The basic underlying technology people would use to publish is free and freely available – services such as wordpress.com, Facebook, Twitter etc. And is increasingly easy to use – designed to be consumer facing. People simply need a helping hand, the confidence and a small stimulus to find an effective voice for their community online.
Talk About Local is grateful to the Royal Society for the opportunity to raise these important issues. We think that Scotland would benefit from government or voluntary sector action to fund a programme of work to find voices online for all Scotland’s diverse, remarkable communities that at present miss out on economic, democratic and social opportunities that could easily be grasped as part of increasing the basic online skills of the nation.
*Other local sites** used as examples in the report included
The final report is due to be published in early spring 2014, we’ll write some more about the report once it has been published.
Myself and William will visiting The Gathering in Glasgow later this month, if you would like to discuss our response to the interim report further or would like to know more about how Talk About Local can work with you to empower communities to help improve digital inclusion, please get in touch with us.
**Thank you to everyone who suggested sites for us to use as examples in the report, we didn’t have space for all of them so chose a selection of the sites suggested.
Away from Talk About Local I take photos, fly my quadcopter and walk my two Beagles.
If I'm not doing any of the above then you'll find me volunteering at my local RNLI station as a press officer.