Bridging the Rural Divide

Lead Research Organisation: Swansea University
Department Name: College of Science


Access to digital services is unevenly distributed across the UK and the urban-rural divide is particularly pronounced. A great deal of effort is being invested in providing universal access, but the development of services that meet rural demand is also needed to engage rural communities in Digital Britain and enhance their stake in the Digital Economy. This project seeks to bridge the rural divide through the development of novel mapping services that augment a broad range of activities underpinning the rural economy; activities such as walking, cycling, canoeing, bird-watching, and other everyday activities that sustain the rural economy. Specifically, the project seeks to develop community-based maps that enhance our engagement with the countryside and novel data services that enable individuals to input and/or access digital content in the field. By developing these services in the wild through direct user participation, the research will provide a blueprint for broader roll-out and provision of services that meet rural need.Current digital mapping services largely focus on urban environments. Google Maps, for example, offers rich street views of urban settings but such views of rural space are largely absent. Google My Maps offers users tools to map out their own routes and add content, such as photographs, video, and textual descriptions, but these are laborious and lack a great deal of contextual relevance. New developments in mobile, location and sensor-based or 'ubiquitous' computing now make it possible for users to move beyond the urban fringe and herald the spatial expansion of computing out from the city and into rural locations that have long been marginalised due to technological limitations, and the development of new online 'Web 2.0' services open up new possibilities for augmenting and sharing field-generated content. This project seeks to leverage new developments in ubiquitous computing and Web 2.0 to enhance our engagement with the rural environment and augment the activities that drive the rural economy.The project seeks to meet its aims through the interdisciplinary and user-led development of a 'rural ubicomp toolkit' that will enable people to create and share community-based maps that represent their distinctive interests and concerns. Thus, and for example, the toolkit will enable users to sketch routes out to indicate interesting pathways through rural space. Sketches will be augmented by GPS data generated in the field. When in the field, users will be able to access community content based on their location, in order to have contextually relevant information fed to them at appropriate points in their journey. Users will also be able to add to the evolving corpus of community knowledge by uploading geo-tagged content via mobile devices. The toolkit will also support more immediate social aspects of our engagement with the rural landscape by enabling content to be accessed, added to, and viewed via situated displays and mini-projectors in visitor centres.The results of the project will be an Open Source toolkit that provides a blueprint for the broader deployment of DIY sensor hardware, software APIs for mobile experience capture, representation and sharing, and tools for ordinary users to create engaging public events. The project is supported by the RCUK Horizon Digital Economy Hub, Ordinance Survey, the Countryside Council of Wales, Mark Williams MP, and the Minister for Rural Affairs in Wales.

Planned Impact

There are three main categories of beneficiary to the research, including local, national, and international beneficiaries. The immediate beneficiaries of the research are the Countryside Council of Wales (CCW), visitors to the Dyfi Nature Reserve where the toolkit will be piloted, local residents, and Ordinance Survey (OS). CCW and OS provide the research with real opportunity to make a tangible impact. CCW is the Government's statutory advisor on sustaining natural beauty, wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor enjoyment in Wales and its inshore waters. Their work impacts national policy and is recognised as having international significance. Our initial route to impact is provided, then, by an organisation which is key to economic development not only in Wales, but also in rural areas across the UK and beyond. Organisational impetus is also provided by OS, which has also expressed a keen interest in, and strong support for, the research and its relevance to their efforts to develop 'vernacular geography' through community participation. In addition to this, the proposed research has also gained the support of Elin Jones, Minister for Rural Affairs in Wales, and Mark Williams, MP for Ceredigion. The combination of organisational impetus and political support means that there is very real possibility that the research can achieve significant impact both in practice and at a broader policy level. The proposed research also results in technological advancements that will be of broad interest to international academic communities, including Web 2.0 developers, mobile and ubiquitous computing, human-computer interaction, and geographers. The emergence of Web 2.0 and widespread uptake of mobile and location-based services opens up new possibilities for our experience of and engagement with places, culture, heritage and the natural world. Not only is it now possible to access digital content on the move, we can also generate digital content on the move and do so relative to our location. The development of user-generated content is a key constituent of Digital Britain and of the burgeoning Digital Economy. Exploiting its potential is therefore key to the development of digital services that bridge the rural divide and enhance the rural economy. Advances in mobile, location and sensor-based computing in particular are leading to a spatial expansion of digital services, out from urban environments and into rural locations and the possibility now exists to exploit them for rural benefit. Development of the 'rural ubicomp toolkit' will enable users to create and share community-oriented content, fostering broader inclusion in Digital Britain and expansion of the Digital Economy beyond its largely urban confines. In turn, development and deployment of the toolkit in the wild will provide a blueprint underpinning broader adoption and uptake, and provide concrete input to broad policy considerations. Dissemination through standard academic channels will ensure international uptake of the work. The research is structured to ensure concrete benefit can be delivered. It is predicated on a feasibility study, which has demonstrated that it is possible to deploy mobile, location and sensor-based systems in rural environments. It exploits key competences in core fields of computer science, geography and ethnography. It is underpinned by expertise in the rapid development of content for mobile and location-based experiences, sensing environmental conditions, visualizing data on digital maps, and creating community-based social networks. Together these factors will ensure the development of the rural ubicomp toolkit and provide a blueprint for widespread deployment and use of DIY sensor hardware, software APIs for mobile experience capture, representation and sharing, and tools for ordinary users to create engaging public events.


10 25 50
publication icon
Betsworth L (2014) Performative technologies for heritage site regeneration in Personal and Ubiquitous Computing

publication icon
Bidwell N (2013) Walking and the social life of solar charging in rural africa in ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction

publication icon
Pearson J (2013) Developing our world views in Interactions

publication icon
Pearson J (2013) ACQR

publication icon
Robinson S (2012) PicoTales

publication icon
Robinson S (2014) A billion signposts

Description Worked to provide content and services in rural areas, bridging the gap between what's available in dense urban contexts and these sparser locations.
Exploitation Route We provided evidence and case studies of value of locally sourced information and digital services for rural "not spots".
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)

Description The work help People's Collection of Wales to explore options for anyone to create a story about their place for the national archive.
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Creative Economy,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Cultural,Societal