Technological at the Margins

One of the core themes of the walks was ‘the margins’.  Walking the periphery of Wales is clearly traversing the physical margins of the country.  This includes most of the major towns and cities of Wales, as they were typically close to the coast from the days when the sea was the easiest way to travel. However, it also passes through many of the most deprived ex-industrial areas of the North and remote rural areas of the West.

Often those at the physical margins, the remote rural areas, are also at the social and economic margins of society with a greater proportion of elderly and a lower average wage than the cities.  However, in some ways the physical margins of the walk highlights marginality in general whether you are in furthest edge of Wales, or the heart of London.  This is very clearly also true in India, where rural poverty is a major issue, but so also is the vast differences between rich and poor within the city.

Those at the physical margins and those at the social margins are also typically technologically disadvantaged.  Free market telecoms infrastructure follows money, so those at the outer margins have poorer mobile coverage, poorer fixed Internet connections and, because they are also likely to be economically poor, old or low-quality devices.

In the UK an increasing proportion of government services are provided through the Internet and commercially the cheapest way to get goods is often online.  The poor and those in remote areas are likely therefore to be cut off from eGovernment and pay more for their goods.  IT deepens the divide.

However, we can turn this round.  Can we envisage IT that serves the margins?  A growing number of researchers and designers are addressing just this question, led by pioneers such as Gary Marsden in Cape Town [Ma08, MM08].  While IT development for the well off will happen anyway due to commercial profit, IT for the margins needs those who care to act.


I visited Bangelore a few years ago as part of UKINIT exchange project.  One of the things that struck me after that first visit to India was the commonality of issues between rural communities in India and rural communities back in the UK [Dx09,Ds10].

Sometimes there are lessons to be learnt from the UK’s past as we went through industrialisation 150 years ago, and with hindsight maybe it is possible to ameliorate some of the problems left in the wake of the industrial revolution; for example, the breakdown of the sense of extended family and local roots.

Sometimes there are positive examples from developed to developing economies.

One example is in the hand textile industry in India, which is suffering from factory competition.  Textile production was the driving force of the industrial revolution, and, for reasons of control more than efficiency, weavers who used to work autonomously within their homes were forced into factories.  However, the exception to this is Harris Tweed.  Presumably because of its remoteness, tweed continued to be woven by hand in the outer isles of Scotland.  Now the brand ‘Harris Tweed’ is protected and can only be used for cloth woven in the weavers’ own homes.

Lessons can also go in the other direction from developing to developed world.

Mitra’s ‘hole in the wall’ project has achieved international acclaim [MD05].  However, Mitra later went to Newcastle in the UK and did similar work in the poor areas of that city.  It was not identical, the British climate and urban vandalism would preclude an exact copy, but similar principles were applied.

About a year ago at one of the Tiree Tech Wave events I organise, the youth worker from Tiree was giving a short talk about the particular problems of youth work on an island.  One problem she mentioned was that, due to the distances and dispersed population, it was hard to communicate effectively.  One of the attendees suggested Frontline SMS, a system developed for NGOs in Africa.  While the interface was not suitable the youth worker was extremely enthusiastic about the underlying idea of using broadcast SMS messages and a dedicated portal, TireeConnect, was built which enabled her to send messages to SMS and social media from the same interface.

One of the ideas that has been on my mind since the early 1990s (pre-web) has been the demise of the village shop, and for that matter local shops in cities.  I don’t know if this has become a problem yet in other countries, but in the UK village shops and small shops in general get squeezed by larger supermarkets.  They are not able to sell as cheaply and so those who can easily travel to large supermarkets do the majority of their shopping there only going to the village shop for ’emergency’ items: a forgotten loaf of bread or bottle of milk.  The village shop’s sales drop, it is even harder to make a profit and many close.

As well as being sad for the shop-keepers, those who do not have cars, the elderly and the poor, suffer both before the shop closes from higher prices on already stretched incomes, and more so after when it can become exceedingly difficult to shop at all, with difficult and costly journeys by public transport … and of course buses in rural areas are infrequent when they run at all.

The question I have pondered for many years is whether IT could help, perhaps bring new forms of business (e.g. as email box for the elderly), to allow ‘just in time’ ordering, or be the drop off point for other forms of postal deliveries [Dx08, Dx08b, DS10].

The solutions I considered 20 years ago are very different to those that might apply today, then it would have been dial-up connections but now broadband, then it would have taken radical changes to logistics, but now Internet shopping means that many delivery systems are already suited to small-run picking.

I never took the action 20 years ago that was needed to turn concept into reality and it may well be that this is an idea that has passed its time.  The crucial question is what are the similar issues today?

Community and Identity

One of my ‘concerns’ in walking was the local issues that matter to communities and indeed the whole nature of community ‘at the margins’.  Living in a small island and having lived in other rural areas in the UK, I have some idea of important issues, but areas differ and so I wanted to get some idea of the commonalities as well as differences between communities.

It maybe that I would learn nothing beyond whether the issues I was already aware of would apply more generally.  However, my hope was that I would learn new things, not so much new answers, but new questions.

My first taste of this came in the first week of the walk.

An interstitial community

I was using my campervan as a base vehicle and so it needed to be parked somewhere when I was using bed and breakfasts.  As a first staging post the van was parked in a small campsite near the heart of the old county town of Monmouth towards the southern end of the Welsh-English border.  The van was in the campsite for 10 days, but I only slept there for two nights.

The campsite consisted of small holiday touring caravans, the sort that can be towed behind quite a small car.  However, it was evident from the small ‘gardens’ with flowerpots and other things around many of them that they were sited semi-permanently.  Many campsites offer ‘season fees’ that are a lot cheaper than the nightly fee, and I assume many of the caravans are parked for the entire season from April to October.

The small clubhouse had a bar and provided meals.  It was itself run by one of the people staying in one of these small caravans.  It was open five nights a week, the other two nights were when the proprietors went ‘home’.  However, the idea of ‘home’ was problematic, for seven months of the year, they spent five nights of the week on the site.  Other owners had similar patterns; one woman said she needed to go ‘home’ to do clothes washing as she had been several weeks on the site, but would be back after a couple of days.

The site was set within the middle of the local community of Monmouth and yet had an identity of its own, a community in the gaps.

In some ways they have similarities to gypsy communities, except if this had been a gypsy encampment it would be rapidly broken up by the police and moved on.

However, unlike gypsies, these people had a parallel life somewhere else.  In a way they form a virtual community, like academic communities, or professional communities of interest, but differ in having a very well-defined physical location.

Certainly this interstitial community, sitting between the cracks, challenges simple notions of locality and community, with multiple communities co-existing in the same locality and individuals belonging to multiple simultaneous ‘local’ communities.  Demands of work are creating increasingly itinerant lifestyles for both city professionals (I live 350 miles from my place of work!) and migrant workers, so rather than being an extreme case, in some ways this small caravan community epitomises broader patterns of changing life styles.

Community and cohesion

The north east coast of Wales has some of the most depressed communities in the country.  Rhyl functions as the dustbin of Liverpool.  It is a run-down seaside town with a surfeit of old bed and breakfast accommodation.  When families and individuals are too difficult to place in Liverpool (and there are some pretty rough areas of Liverpool), they are sent to Rhyl.  Drug abuse and poverty are high and it is the most depressed ‘ward’ (local authority unit) in Wales.

The reasons for Rhyl’s problems are not hard to see.  However, I was also struck by the way different communities facing hardship seem to cope differently.

Connagh’s Quay is a small ex-industrial town on the Dee Estuary.  The industries that gave employment to the area have all closed and it is visibly run-down; even the pubs have closed, usually the last thing to survive in a British working-class area.

Further along the coast are other coastal villages that lost their industry.  Penmaenmawr used to have large limestone quarries.  There is still some quarrying, but now using modern machinery and employing a tiny number of people.  Furthermore a road and railway cut the town from the sea destroying any potential for seaside tourism.  There is a tiny area called the ‘Promenade’, barely 50 metres long, and reached through a tunnel under the railway and road.  It has nothing going for it, and yet the promenade is one of the best kept that I saw in my travels, with a small beach cafe that has local heritage books to read while you eat.  Local notices give a sense that there is a vibrant living community here.

Why does one community decay from within and another retain its heart?  Is it the physical circumstances, the open sea lifting the spirits compared to the grey mud of an estuary?  Is it simply distance from Liverpool?  Or is it the difference between a past rooted in the ground beneath you, literally connecting you to your locality despite hardship, compared to the smell and filth of chemical production?

Language and culture

In Wales, language, culture and national identity are intimately linked, even for those who do not themselves speak the language.  In the UK, as in other areas of the world, regional languages are constantly under threat.

This has changed in my own lifetime.  When I was a child Welsh was not apparent with the exception of a Welsh version of the TV news (it was fun seeing the same images with different commentary).  However, following many years of campaigning by the non-violent language movement (and the activities of paramilitary groups, whose role is usually downplayed [Cl13]), there was a substantial change during the late 1970s and 1980s, with dual language signs, and most important S4C, the Welsh language TV station.

In contrast to the 1920s when children were punished for speaking Welsh in school, now there are a large number of schools where the teaching is all done in Welsh, with substantial numbers of English speaking parents sending their children as well as Welsh speakers.  As I walked through the west of the country, people of all ages spoke Welsh as their main language and in Monmouth (in the east) I met an Englishman who had learnt to be a fluent Welsh speaker and recently addressed a local council meeting in Welsh.

However, in the last census the proportion of Welsh speakers in the core Welsh counties dropped slightly, after many years of increase [BB12].  One reason is incomers and retirees who can (if they don’t learn the language) dilute the local language and culture, as well as price-out the young people from the housing market.  Another is media.  When S4C was founded it was one Welsh channel with three other TV channels.  Now it is one amongst hundreds of English language channels on satellite TV, with the majority of web materials also in English.  This is of course a common story across the world, not least India with hundreds of languages under theat.

In principle, IT can help long-tail communities.   The term ‘long-tail’ arose in the business community [An06], but became one of the defining features of Web2.0 [OR05].  Most traditional large businesses and early web sites focused on satisfying some broad interest shared by a large number of people, for example, people who like action movies, or the latest pop star.  However, Web2.0 sites used the global reach of the Internet combined with web personalisation, to cater for smaller groups of people, for example, those interested in pet ferrets, or 1980s Newcastle-based Rock and Roll bands.  In principle, this ought to also apply to minority-language groups, but this promise does not seem to be materialising.  Can we help make this potential into reality?

One promising example of this happening is the translation of Code Club materials into Welsh [CC13, CD13].  For older children programming language translation is probably not a big issue.  However, for the youngest children, being able to not only read work cards., etc, in their own language, but also program in Welsh not only reduces barriers, but also says that Welsh is a language of the future, not just the past.

Tourist towns often have maps: either paper maps to carry around or ‘you are here’ maps on boards.  Some of these are ‘standard’ maps in terms of shape, but may have different things on them compared with route map: emphasising local businesses and accommodation, main shopping streets and historical attractions, but de-emphasising residential areas where tourists are not expected to go (and may not be wanted).  Sometimes they also differ in shape, maybe making the centre larger in a fish-eye effect, or drawn in semi-perspective, as if viewed from a hill rather than directly overhead.

Digital mapping has never been easier with Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, and in the UK, the Ordnance Survey making some of their mapping open data.  However the ease of using ‘standard’ maps runs the risk of replacing the more locally meaningful maps.  As Barbara Bender said:

Post-Renaissance maps cover the surface of the world with an homogeneous Cartesian grip.” [Be96, p.41]

In Cardigan in West Wales a centenary was celebrated by knitting a giant cardigan (as in the kind to wear) that was a map of Cardigan.  In the Dysynni Valley I saw a 3D community map, that was based on the ‘standard’ map [Wh96], but made out of fabric and stitch, like the “Land of Counterpane” in Robert Lois Stephenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses” [St85].

Is it possible to retain the richness of local mapping in a digital age?

As an attempt to hold on to some of this richness, Frasan,  the Tiree island mobile heritage app uses digitised versions of hand-drawn maps of Tiree for its ‘zoomed out’ view, only dropping into ‘standard’ maps when you zoom into detail [An13].  It uses ‘rubber sheeting’ algorithms to map from the GPS coordinate system to locations on the map to plot the locations of archive items and the user’s current location [Dx13].