My colleagues at ruralnet|uk, Robert Mannion and Angela Brankley, had a good week this week dragging 'digitally excluded' farmers into the world of email, the internet and aggregation using RSS!
The Warwickshire Rural Hub now have 1000 members and evidence suggests that only about half of them use email. Many don't even have a connection to the internet, some won't have access to broadband even if they wanted it.
The hub was established after the 2001 Foot & Mouth (FMD) outbreak to support farmers and enable them to support themselves. Analyses of the way in which farmers coped during the FMD outbreak have showed that those with access to email and the internet coped better. So there is a really bit return for getting rurally isolated farmers online.
But how should you go about doing this? Is a training course the answer? Although this is what we'd been asked for, experience has told us that running a simple training course in these circumstances would have been next to useless. Time for some creative experimentation.
We decided we needed to set them up with their own email account, show them how to use it and how to use Google - quite a tall order for someone who has to use two hands to control a mouse . . .
It was also relevant that these farmers were part of a group.
We used Google Apps for Your Domain which:
- provided them all with gMail @warkshub.net
- aggregated key information from a range of relevant sources onto a single page: newsfeeds (inc a filtered feed from our own xPRESS Digest service), weather, access to their gMail account, shared calendars of farmers markets and other events in the West Midlands and more
- provided the network facilitators with a mechanism to communicate with the whole group.
My colleague Rob said:
The group can now receive timely and relevant information from the worldwide web delivered straight to their desktop. They have effectively ‘leap-frogged’ from having very little experience and knowledge of the internet to benefiting from the latest Web 2.0 features, such as RSS and networked calendars.
There is a vast amount of information out there on the internet that looking for precisely what you want and need can seem a daunting task and is very time-consuming. The tools and training provided on this course offer ‘one-stop shop’ tailored specifically for these busy people; from being kept up to date with latest alerts from Defra to being able to use email effectively.
The next time farmers are confined to their farms . . . . Warwickshire will be (at least partly) ready!
The next step is to seek funding to train the remaining 488 farmers in Warwickshire and to help other Counties, where we can, to run their own programmes.
The start page for the WarksHub system can be seen here: www.warkshub.net
WARNING: Google Apps for Your Domain is still pretty flakey on the administration side of things. However, once you've got a system set-up it seems to work well for end users.