Key to the success of the MANY project are the partnerships developed with the communities we work with. From the inception of the MANY project, we have put the needs of rural communities at its heart. By understanding the landscape, talking with local people, businesses and community members, we are beginning to understand how a lack of digital infrastructure in North Yorkshire’s rural communities generates significant challenges in peoples everyday working and family lives, and excludes them from accessing the services so widely enjoyed by those living in more urban settings.
MANY’s community engagement work has brought us into discussions with key stakeholders within areas recognised as having difficulties with mobile connectivity and unreliable or zero digital service coverage. We have listened to County Council Divisional Councillors, Richmondshire District Council Planning Authority, the North Yorkshire Dales Planning Authority and MPs. We have had conversations with Town and Parish Councils and with all these stakeholders we have been explaining the aim of our project, highlighting our proposals for working with communities to understand their needs and to help us begin to develop some solutions in partnership.
Our conversations with local parish and town councils, and community members, together with the technical and practical assessment of what connectivity equipment might work well in the different rural landscapes (trees, hilly terrain and a community’s location in relation to existing digital infrastructure all affect what is possible to deliver), are progressing. But there is no doubt that the COVID pandemic has slowed them down; making it harder for us to organise engagement activities, removing the option of face-to-face conversation and requiring us to use the telephone or (where they are accessible to people), digital platforms such as Zoom and Teams. We decided early on in the pandemic that we could only progress this work in a way that was safe for rural communities and our MANY project team members. We have followed all government guidelines accordingly.
Meanwhile our technical team have been learning about the particularities of the North Yorkshire landscape, the implications this has for the provision of digital connectivity services and the possibilities for emerging kit for getting the community connected.
As a result of this combined work, Coverdale was identified as the first location in North Yorkshire that the MANY project where new connectivity services could be put in place.
At the moment we are in the process of developing our understanding of Coverdale residents; of their experiences living with unreliable digital connectivity in relation to their work and everyday lives. We want to develop a good sense of the challenges currently faced by this rural community, and to understand any concerns or hopes they might have about the technical and social change the connectivity opportunities might generate.
We have interviewed a number of people in the Coverdale community who have shared their thoughts and concerns about the lack of connectivity, and the introduction of 5th Generation (5G) technology in their locality. Our research so far has revealed how important the notion and characterisation of place is to rural communities and the tensions and desires of individuals for rural places such as Coverdale to be connected – technically, socially, and economically – to 5G and related digital infrastructures and services. Key themes emerging from these interviews include: social connectedness, running a business, education, and reliability of digital connection. Below are just some examples of what residents have said:
Running a business/working from home
‘There’s very few banks in the area, so people have to do online banking, but they struggle with the security measures in place, the text authentication problem, as they can’t receive a text. It’s a real problem. I have to run up the hill from my home to receive a text, in all weathers, but by the time I get back the computer has timed out’
‘When the internet goes down here you can feel quite isolated. Your heart sinks as you know it’s to do with your individual connectivity. It’s up to us to sort it, opposed to if you lived in a city and an engineer was in the area. I’ve got to get on the phone, be put in a queue for hours, be put through the various checking procedures, before they will actually send an engineer.’
‘With better connectivity I could actually spend time on growing the business rather than sitting here taking three, four, five times as long to do things’
‘We live in a pretty isolated place. A big restriction is not having a mobile signal. For example, when I last contacted the Drs surgery, they said they would get the Dr to call me back. But because I don’t have a mobile signal I was tied to the house and had to wait. I ended up waiting all day for a phone call. So that would be good if it [connectivity] got sorted.’
‘Having reliable connectivity for future residents will make the appeal of living in Coverdale much greater. It would help the community cohesion, the children living here, the schools, and everything that goes with it.
‘My child has had to sit in the car up the hill to take part in school online Zoom lessons so not to miss out’
‘Our connection can’t accommodate more than one person being on an online Zoom call, so we must take it in turn, which is challenging balancing work and online lessons’
Reliability of connection
‘The broadband is really slow or drops out completely. It can literally take 2 ½ hours to do an online grocery shop because the signal’s dropped out and we’ve lost our order and have to start again’
‘We would just like to have the reliability and consistency of being able to be connected, for our home and family, our business, but also the wider community, for example local farmers. Farming is a very lonely occupation, and probably one of the most dangerous’
It is clear that the Coverdale rural community currently struggle in their everyday lives because of a lack of digital connectivity. They also provide a clear indication of how the MANY project has the potential to bring real benefits to Coverdale residence, and to catalyse the flourishing of this newly connected community.
Our Approach now and moving forward
As explained in an earlier blog, the MANY project is a ‘Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) project that is governed by a set of core principles: inclusion (this means including community members in our study of what might be done technically to help get the community connected in a way that adds value to their everyday lives), anticipation (this means trying to anticipates needs, problems concerns that a community might have), responsiveness (this means taking action to respond to community needs, problems and/or concerns), and reflexivity (this means learning as we go through the project and trying to do things better at each stage). These principles are helping our researchers work out which research and development actions are appropriate with the specific community where, in this instance, connectivity innovations are being developed and put in place.
These RRI principles require the MANY team to go through stringent ethics process with our university partners to ensure that we are acting in the community’s interest; requiring us to have processes and support services in place should we come across community participant that tell us they need help; perhaps with developing digital skills, access community support services and such like. We have partnered with the Community First Yorkshire team to help us do this work.
Community First Yorkshire bring with them a wealth of local experience and knowledge and are trusted member of our North Yorkshire communities. They are helping us to develop conversations with community members and helping our community members that participate in our engagement conversations, access support, should this seem appropriate. Our aim here is to help people lead enhanced rural lives, supported by these new digital infrastructures. We can only do this well if we understand the challenges communities face by not having connectivity and the help they need to engage with the digital services that could become available to them.
We want to speak with more people in Coverdale. If you’d like to have a conversation with a researcher, to explain your situation, your needs, your concerns and hopes, then please do get in touch. Email us or call us on 0300 400 4444 to leave your name and number and we will be in touch.