Rural Challenges: What I learned at my first Tinder Foundation event

13 Jul 2015 | Written by Robert Shapiro

My first special event as part of the Good Things Foundation family was Rural Challenges, Digital Solutions in Birmingham - what an incredible event it was! People travelled from all parts of the country to share their experiences and come up with solutions to help some of the most rural parts of the UK become more digitally included.

It’s important to help each other understand the key challenges faced by rural communities in this ever-changing world, where digital is becoming more of a necessity in everyday life. This event was beneficial in a number of ways, but one of the key facts I took away from the day was that it doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re from, rural villages and communities share the same challenges.

William Perrin, Good Things Foundation board member and founder of Talk About Local and the Connect8 campaign, kicked off the day’s proceedings and was happy to share his experiences with the room. Living in a rural area himself, he found a way to boost his own mobile signal by putting an aerial on the outside of his house, connected to the router on the inside. It was hard work but he got results!

He also shared other findings such as the WIBE device and Village Networks. People were really engaged in what William had to say and it was great to see people approaching him throughout the day to ask his thoughts and advice on rural digital inclusion issues.

Vodafone are doing some amazing work too and I was really interested to hear from Graham Dunn about some of the things they’re doing. Having lived in a city for the past ten years I didn’t realise that there is still a high number of rural communities who don’t have access to a mobile signal - something I take for granted these days.

There are pieces of kit that Vodafone can provide to improve signal as part of their Open Sure Signal programme. It’s much more discreet than the alternative of a giant mast in a picturesque environment.

They’ve even had some success in getting small masts onto church towers, which is a great idea as most villages tend to have churches overlooking them. I didn’t think this would be possible but some communities have managed to work with churches to make this happen.

One of the major emerging themes from these speeches was that it doesn't necessarily have to be superfast broadband and coverage in the area - it just has to work!

In the afternoon, we split up into small workshops. I had the pleasure of sitting in with Sam Stronach from Cottsway Housing Association, who was keen to share how they overcame the communication barriers they had with their customers. One example of what they did was to create tailored training sessions at customers’ homes or local venues.

They also have a successful equipment loan service where they lend out laptops and tablets to help their customers get used to the devices, and they’ve found that listening to their customers’ needs - whether they want to Skype, do shopping or just browse - is a good way to get them engaged.

I thought their idea to utilize Facebook as a means of communication is great too. Lots of people use Facebook and, in fact, we’ve just launched a new Learn My Way course about Facebook - on Facebook! Social media really is a good way to stay in touch and it can help learners practise their digital skills at the same time.

The guys in the workshop were all keen to share their ideas too as they face similar challenges - trying to make it easier for tenants to work with them and create a better relationship in the future.

My second workshop was with Julia Lyford from Northumberland Community Development Network who has one of the biggest challenges out of everybody at the conference - 97% of Northumberland is classed as rural! NCDN support people who support their communities and create a voice for and with excluded people - this is just a small part of the excellent work they do.

In the workshop Julia focussed on the importance of creating partnerships with organisations like job centres, libraries, cafes, banks and community projects as a way of reaching out to people in communities to help them develop digital skills and find work.

Because of the sparse population in the area Julia reinforced the importance of one-to-one sensitive local support and the challenges that brings, for example the time it takes to travel between locations.

We also talked about the importance of mobile services and providing the right training and supervision to volunteers, who are integral in providing additional support in rural communities.

In the third workshop of the day Katie Lake from Gloucestershire Rural Community Council discussed some of the challenges they face when trying to engage older people in rural areas. One challenge they face in particular is the lack of services in the area. Encouraging older people to do their shopping online isn’t any use to them if the supermarket won’t deliver to their house! GRCC introduced their project, In Touch, which helps reduce social isolation by enabling older learners to access health-related and social activities through information, advice and signposting.

I really think the workshops - and the day as a whole - were a great way for people to network and share their experiences. I was pleased to see lots of people leaving with copies of Good Things Foundation’s Doing Digital Inclusion: Rural Handbook too, which outlines some common challenges faced by people in rural communities and offers lots of hints and tips for tackling rural digital exclusion. I think it’s a great resource and I’m sure they’ll find it very helpful!

The main thing I took away from the event was the sound knowledge that everybody managed to have their say and they all had a chance to share their ideas of how to overcome some of the challenges we discussed.

I can’t wait for my next event to see what else I can learn!

To see more highlights from the day, take a look at our event Storify here.