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“there is no periphery in cyberspace”
The Highlands and Islands Community Website Conference
18 - 19 April 2002  Thistle Hotel, Inverness 
Conference Report

This highly successful conference was organised by The Strengthening Communities Group of Highlands and Islands Enterprise in partnership with the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. It aimed to address what was seen as the most enduring problem for rural and remote communities: distance: distance between members of the community, and distance between communities and other agencies and decision-makers with which they are involved. Websites offer the potential to overcome this problem - at least in part; but only if they are well-designed and founded on a clear conception of purpose. By providing a stimulating mix of keynote speakers, practical workshops and networking opportunities, the Conference made a significant contribution to the advancement of website design and use in the highlands and islands. Around one hundred delegates and presenters came together in the Thistle Hotel in Inverness to be welcomed on Day 1 by Dr Stuart Black, the Head of the Strengthening Communities Group at HIE.

Day 1: The Speakers

Brendan Dick, General Manager, BT Scotland.

Rural Community Websites: Opportunities and Changes.
The two key messages from Brendan Dick were that (a) anyone can set up a website, and (b) that a website will make a difference to your community or local business. The difference derives from the access to the immense global audience for each site - estimated to be in the region of 700 million by the year 2004. This global explosion offers both opportunities and challenges. The technical ones involved in establishing a site are the easiest to address and overcome; more difficult is ensuring the commitment required to keep the site going and the determination to deal with the ever-increasing competition from other, similar, sites. What is certain is that we are only now at the beginning of a process. There will be opportunities out in cyberspace that we have not even begun to envisage.

Right now, however, increasing numbers are living in a virtual community, and there are exciting opportunities for rural communities to set out their stalls to an international market. As more communities and businesses get access to more bandwidth, a ‘virtuous circle’ of supply and demand becomes established with consumer expectations increasing in line with higher quality communications; in e-commerce, web-surfing, education, and so on. The tourism market alone is being transformed by high quality community websites.

For communities, the way ahead is clearly via the internet and other communications technologies. But for this to be effective there needs to be local ownership of the media and the fullest possible participation by all sections of the community. The best community websites will involve not just local businesses and public agencies but also schools, social clubs and individuals within and beyond the community.

Brendan Dick concluded his presentation by illustrating good practice with some examples of effective websites, namely the Islay and Jura site ( www.islay-jura.com ); the Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise site ( www.hie.co.uk ); the local business site for North Lands Creative Glass ( www.northlandsglass.com ); the legendary Friends Reunited site ( www.friendsreunited.co.uk ) and the newly-established site for Scotland’s voluntary sector ( www.workwithus.org ), about which we were to hear much more later in the Conference.

Chris Higgins, Strengthening Communities Group, HIE.

Highlands and Islands Communities on the Web.

HIE’s interest in websites goes back quite a few years. Chris Higgins reminded delegates of his organisation’s longstanding commitment to community development and how the search in the mid-1990s for the ‘big idea’ led HIE to commit strong support to the concept of community websites. It was recognised early on that this could not be a ‘top-down’ initiative. Websites could not be imposed on communities; they had to be the product of DIY initiatives by communities themselves. In any case, they were developing too fast for central control. At least 250, and probably more, community websites are now up and running in the HIE area. And in addition to these community-run sites, there are countless sites with community-related information: from schools, bed and breakfast establishments, hotels, and so on. The challenge for HIE is, therefore, not to create websites but to link them. This the HIE website sets out to do with the Community Links pages on its main site ( www.hie.co.uk ).

Why is HIE so keen on community websites? The answer is to be found in the network’s newly-added fourth aim. In addition to strengthening communities, growing businesses and developing skills, HIE is in the business of making global connections. ‘Connectivity’ is what it’s all about, and community websites are central to this aim. Connections can be valuable at all levels. Local communities can learn a great deal from talking to each other. Websites are a straightforward, fairly painless, way of doing this, and they are also far and away the most effective way for the highlands and islands to talk to the rest of the world.

A community website is a community’s shop window. But it’s a very large window - one that can be viewed by millions throughout the world. So it must be a good one. We need to be careful about what we put in our windows. The content needs to be of the highest quality and the utmost relevance.

Cathy Maclean, Assistant Director, SCVO.

The Net Effect.

Cathy Maclean is the Chief Operating Officer of Workwithus.org - the portal for voluntary organisations in Scotland. The need for such a portal ( www.workwithus.org  ) is evidenced by the very large (and still growing) number of charities and voluntary groups - around nine thousand in the highlands and islands alone. All of these groups want both to access information (e.g. about funding, training, etc.) and to be seen by potential users, supporters, funders or whoever. There are thus two distinct audiences for the portal: namely, the voluntary sector and the general public, and the portal presents tremendous opportunities for information sharing and collaboration among voluntary groups and for promoting these groups to a wider audience.

SCVO had begun in 1999 to look seriously at the effects of internet use on voluntary organisations. It was clear that a website could give an organisation a public face, and that an important part of that process was the preliminary clarification of the aims and purposes of the organisation that is demanded before website design can begin. It was equally clear that the internet presented unprecedented opportunities for the sharing of information and collaboration between related organisations.

The new workwithus.org portal is a response to these opportunities. It provides for voluntary organisations 11 ‘channels’ containing news, information about funding and training opportunities, a facility to receive donations, a shopping mall, chat rooms and bulletin boards, assistance with lobbying and even a job search facility. Security is a key feature of the portal, so that contributing organisations can tailor their message to a restricted audience if required. The site is also self-updating, making it of maximum benefit to subscribers. Information Packs about the new service were made available to conference delegates, who had further opportunities to discuss the initiative during the optional workshops on Day 2.

The cost of accessing the resources of the workwithus.org portal was queried by a delegate, who felt this may be beyond the means of some voluntary groups. In response, Cathy Maclean stated that much of the site was entirely free and voluntary organisations could gain a great deal of benefit from it for no charge.

Bill Fernie

The Caithness Connection

Bill Fernie established the Caithness community website ( www.caithness.org ) in April 1999 - initially to make more widely available local information collected by Caithness Voluntary Group. The aim was to create a web page for every voluntary organisation, church, school, etc. in Caithness, and a training course was set up to show volunteers how to build web pages. By April 2000, Bill’s involvement with the site had become virtually full-time, with his son Niall providing technical help for around 20 hours per week. By January 2001, the site had expanded beyond the voluntary sector, a message board had been introduced, and traffic and visitor numbers were steadily increasing.

A visit to the United States in the Spring of 2000 stimulated some new ideas for the site - notably about using a digital camera to dramatically increase the number of pictures. The site began to assume its current form as a mixture of local news with tourist information about the Caithness area. Updating the site increased from three times a week to as much as four to six times a day, and with every increase in updating the front page came an increase in traffic.

In February 2001 an approach was made to Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise (CASE) for help in setting up the website as a business, and Scorrie Internet Services www.scorrie.co.uk  was established on 1 May 2001 with Niall Fernie as the first employee.  By this time a sizeable list of contacts had been built up of people who wished to provide content for the site, and items now arrive daily (by e-mail) from these contributors.

What are the fundamentals of making the whole thing a success? First is the technical expertise - in this case from Niall and one of his friends. Second is a wide knowledge of the local area and the people who live in it. Third is determination to sustain an expanding site - constantly updating the content, replying to the huge correspondence that the site generates, policing chat rooms and message boards.

The ‘Caithness community’ is now a global one. People from more than 100 countries access the site, and 400,000 pages are looked at each month. The dynamism of changing the front page each day and the vitality of the chat rooms and message boards give it international appeal. The pictures of Wick gala day in August 2000 saw traffic double overnight as local users emailed gala pictures throughout the world. What has become apparent is the vast number of people world-wide claiming Caithness descent, and the website has become for them a link with what they see as home.

What is now important is to drive forward the business side so that the site can survive its founders. E-commerce will grow in importance and the site should be part of that. The arrival of broadband will offer all sorts of possibilities (live concerts by the Wick Pipe Band?). But what is of over-riding importance is that the site must continue to be fun - that’s why people visit, to be interested and entertained.

Day 1: The Workshops

There were three option workshops in this session, with delegates choosing one of them according to their needs. They were -

Workshop 1: Setting up a Community Website: community aspects.

Susan Torrance, Braidgrove Ltd and HIE Board member.

Workshop 2: Setting up a Community Website: technical aspects.

Maggie Symonds, Calico UK.

Workshop 3: Setting up a Community Website: sustainability aspects.

Alaistar Nicolson, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise.

Each workshop was invited to agree on three recommendations for action which would help community websites:

• one for the public agencies (not just HIE)

• one for the industry (not just BT)

• one for the voluntary sector (not just SCVO).

These recommendations are summarised as follows (Note: this includes recommendations from the Day 2 Workshops).

Public agencies
Further develop range and number of internet access points with ‘always on’ fast access.

Ensure access to local advice/support/training.

One stop information shop for new community website designers.

Funding for designing and operating community websites.

Access to broadband and ‘always on’ services to increase range of low cost options in rural areas.

Development of simpler internet access to reduce the digital divide.

Transparency of information about services.

Reduce cost of hardware and use of lines.

Voluntary Sector
Facilitate support/sharing at local and national level for community website development, with local forums to share experiences and good practice.

Co-ordinate access to local training and support, and identify community mentor.

Clarify the grey area of insurance.

Campaign for proper resources.

Organise more, and more local, hands-on workshops.

Day 2: The Keynote Speakers

Richard Bellingham, Digital Inclusion Team, Scottish Executive

After welcoming delegates back for Day 2 of the Conference, Helen Betts-Brown (Head of Rural Development, SCVO) introduced Richard Bellingham, who has headed up the Scottish Executive’s Digital Inclusion Unit ( www.scotland.gov.uk/digitalscotland ) since its creation in April 2001. The aim of the Unit was identified as being to ensure that Scotland obtains maximum social and economic advantage from digital technology. Specific targets include:

• achieving universal access to the Internet by 2005 (defined for rural areas as access within 5 miles), and

• accelerating the number of households in disadvantaged areas with access to the Internet..

At the present time, only around 30% of Scottish households are online - significantly below both England (39%) and the US (44%) - with the excluded majority having fewer opportunities to take part in the Internet’s education, shopping, entertainment and communications opportunities. It should be noted that this ‘digital divide’ is not related to the availability of broadband; nor are rural areas disadvantaged - they appear to have higher rates of home-based access than urban areas. The excluded tend to be characterised by low incomes, low levels of numeracy and literacy and greater likelihood of unemployment.

How is the digital divide to be overcome? This has to be by a co-ordinated approach which involves awareness raising, improving access, improving skills, building support, developing content and involving communities.

Awareness raising involves both TV and press campaigns. Access issues are being tackled via a programme of public internet access points - at least 1000 of them across the country, in banks, shops, pubs, bus stations etc. Applications for these will be invited shortly (for Information Packs, call 0845 270 1043). The remaining strands of the integrated approach - building skills, content and community involvement demand the encouragement of local communities to become active on their own behalf, utilising lottery funding, supported training opportunities and the National Grid for Learning. The Digital Communities project in West Dunbartonshire and the North Argyll Islands and the Digital Champions programmes in Social Inclusion Partnership (SIP) areas are both central to this strategy.

Bridging the digital divide is a Scottish Executive priority. Tackling it, however, will demand a partnership approach involving both national and local action. Rural communities have a major part to play.

Richard Burn, Business Director, Communities Scotland.

Communities Scotland was established in November 2001, bringing together Scottish Homes and the Area Regeneration Division of the Scottish Executive ( www.communitiesscotland.gov.uk ). It has a broader remit than Scottish Homes with a particular focus on community regeneration and social justice. This involves:

• reducing inequalities within and between communities;

• fostering resident satisfaction with their neighbourhoods;

• improving the physical fabric of neighbourhoods;

• creating a sense of belonging, ownership and empowerment;

• improving the quality of local services;

• creating links within and between communities; and

• making better connections to jobs, services and the mainstream economy.

The role of Communities Scotland in digital inclusion is to:

• help raise awareness of the internet;

• support the ‘social economy’ and relevant voluntary and community organisations within it;

• facilitate innovative pilot projects in the use of information technology;

• encourage the introduction of new ideas and lateral thinking.

To this end, Communities Scotland is setting up a Scottish Centre for Community Regeneration, the function of which is to identify and disseminate good practice. In the case of community websites, good practice will certainly feature good quality content and a high level of community involvement.

Following the two keynote speakers, comments from the floor included expressed concern about the costs of accessing the public internet access points - these should be low cost or no cost.; a strong plea for funding of the upkeep costs of maintaining public access (including hall rental, heating, lighting, etc); and the suggestion that there should be mobile access points in remote and rural areas.

Richard Burn was asked if he could envisage people paying rents and collecting benefits online. He agreed that was something that could be considered.

Day 2: The Workshops
The first workshop session, from 1015 to 1125, offered delegates a choice of three alternatives. These were:

Workshop 1: SCVO Portal - workwithus.org .

Gordon Kingsford-Smith, Workwithus.org

Workshop 2: Communities with websites - swapping experiences.

Helen Turnbull, Lochaber Communications Network Ltd.

Workshop 3: Communities wanting websites - with panel of experienced website operators.

Niall Smith, Caithness Voluntary Group.

The second workshop session, from 1130 to 1215 took place in plenary session and was led by Maggie Symonds of Calico UK

The website as a marketing tool or as a community service.

Clarifying your objectives is crucial. You shouldn’t have a website unless you know what you want it for, what it’s meant to achieve, and who it is for. The classification of virtual communities by Lee Komito * may be helpful. Komito distinguishes:

Proximate communities: which share a common geographical area

Norm-based communities: which share common rules

Moral communities: which share common goals

An individual community website may choose to place its emphasis on one of these three characteristics, or may aim to emphasise more than one. But what all community sites can aim to achieve is the fostering of a sense of belonging, of co-operation and sharing.

What about marketing vs. community service? The aim of a site that defines its prime purpose as marketing is to make outsiders aware of the community. The aim of the service site is to provide links and services within the community. The emphasis in a marketing site will be on:

• commercial gain

• ‘what’ rather then ‘where’ (product rather then locality)

• search engine ranking rather than domain name

• possible problems with competitors

• starting small and growing.

The community service site is likely to feature:

• an events calendar

• small ads

• regularly updated local news

• community newsletters

• a directory of local e-mail addresses

• information on shared resources (e.g. a database of community websites).

Key issues for both types of community website include the importance of contributors (for help with editing, or running a forum); the need to identify clearly the ownership of the site and the role of any representative bodies associated with it (e.g. community councils) and the value of clear rules and guidelines for the site (e.g. not adding photos of children without securing parental permission). Community websites appear to be most effective in small, well-defined communities - perhaps larger communities should aim to have more than one site.

In conclusion ….. share your intentions (let people know what you are planning), encourage enthusiasts, and expect demand for your site to increase significantly in the next eighteen months.

Komito, Lee. The Net as a Foraging Society: Flexible Communities. The Information Society vol. 14, no. 2 (April-June 1998).

Concluding Session

Helen Betts-Brown introduced the final session of conference by firstly thanking all of the delegates for their active participation and expressing her belief that all had learnt a lot and that many new and useful networks had been created. All of the speakers and workshop leaders were thanked, as were the SCVO conference organisers, and Maggie and Joel Symonds were particularly thanked for their invaluable technical expertise. The final speaker was then introduced.

John Ferguson, Director of Development and Programmes, SCVO.

Computers that fell trees