Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Politics of Rural Net: One Web-Site, Many Owners

Rural Net is a pan-European project (partly funded by the European Union) which involved participants from rural regions in four countries. Web-sites were produced for each of the four regions and although not identical, the original aim was that they should share some commonality in approach, delivery and use of technology. With the passage of time and the imperative of local needs this requirement gradually became less significant.

The focus on the use of web technologies in rural areas was to improve the social and economic well being of local residents and businesses. The principal application areas were:

  • support for small and medium sized business;
  • local and public services;
  • Internet 2010
  • lifelong learning;
  • community networking and information.

The idea was that the Rural Net web-site should give the local community seamless access to various types of information offered by regional content providers, who in this case consisted of the local council, the Enterprise Board, the tourist board and police force. The aim of the content providers was to use the Web to provide a better service to the public.

Each region was committed to installing a number of regional access terminals to allow the public to use the site, for example, libraries, tourist information and enterprise board offices. This decision ensured that a high percentage of people accessing the site would be naive users, whose experience of using web technology was limited.

Rural Net had a range of parties involved in its production:

  • A technical lead, a small software house responsible for day-to-day development of the site.
  • The regional content providers, who were also in essence the clients.
  • Industrial sponsors, two large IT services companies who provided practical consultancy as their contribution to the project.

The author's involvement with Rural Net came about as part of this industrial sponsorship. In addition to usability consultancy, the industrial sponsors provided project management and development skills. There were a number of key themes that were considered important in the planning of the web-site, these were:

  1. The integration of information, both at a technical level (Integrate these two databases") and an organizational level ("get these two organizations to work together for the good of the local area").
  2. Personalization: users could register on the site. Registered members would have the ability to request specific types of news, to save search results and to bookmark links. It was anticipated that this feature would be particularly useful at the regional access points where a number of different users would use the same machine.
  3. The use of a map style interface to present geographical information to the user.

The nature of the project and its funding meant that there was a wide range of people involved, whose interests and goals did not always match. The technical lead (a small software company) and a research group at a local university were both reliant on funding from the project. They regarded it primarily as a research opportunity. The content providers wanted a site that supported the local community and local businesses, they were keen to have a practical easy to use site which would have a life beyond EU funding.

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