Thursday, 11 July 2013

From Beer to Boats and everywhere in between - travelling on free wifi!

Last month I had the fortune to travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland for work and pleasure. The last time I was in Europe was in 2008 and I was excited to see how traveling had changed with respect to getting online.

Back in 2008, I didn't have an iPhone or iPad and travelled with a bulky laptop which I had trouble connecting to the Internet. So in 2008 I did what I had done on previous trips, track down Internet cafes and spend an hour here or there connecting with everyone through email and downloading and printing my work and travel materials - if that was even possible in the hot and sweaty cafes I found myself in.

This time around I had a fairly busy travel schedule, hitting 5 cities in 6 days. I wanted to stay well connected with family and work as it was busy times for both. To make sure I could travel quickly and flexibly as well as ensuring that I could be in touch most of the time, I needed to have regular access to the Internet and would need more than Internet cafes. Equipped with an iPhone and an iPad, I had portable devices that would keep me connected and let me do my work, but I needed to figure out how to get online regularly. Before the trip I was trying to decide whether or not I buy a data plan in Europe or pay through the nose for an international travel plan through my Canadian carrier.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user oDonovan
(creative commons)
I got as as far as unlocking my iPhone, a new freedom here in Canada, before I stumbled across some blog posts that described staying connected solely via free wifi when traveling in Europe. I was skeptical as I wouldn't want to travel here in Canada relying solely on wifi that may or may not be available and free at airports, hotels - I know I can always get free wifi at Starbucks or Subway here in Canada but that's not often convenient and often not even an option in rural areas. What the heck I thought, lets give it a try - with an unlocked phone I can always grab a SIM card and data plan if i get frustrated by the lack of wifi access in my travels in Ireland and the UK.

As soon as I landed in Heathrow airport, I wanted to double-check my accommodations and low and behold free wifi was available. Travelers in Canada know that free wifi is not a sure thing in our airports.The next day I hopped on a train for my next destination and saw that Virgin trains offers high-speed Internet access on route! This was the only time I paid for wifi but it was only $9 Canadian for 3 hours of wifi while I travelled, which seemed like a bargain to me as it was much cheaper than the $5-10 an hour i paid at Internet cafes in 2008. Wifi while traveling was my favourite feature and this train journey was the first of many opportunities to surf the net while watching rural areas go by.

Photo taken by author
I soon discovered that wifi was available at an extraordinary number of locations and almost all of it free and of good quality as well. I almost always had at least 5Mbps download and often more than 10 Mbps through the free wifi. On this trip I was able to have Skype calls in pubs such as this one in rural England; FaceTime with my wife and kids as I crossed the Irish Sea on Irish Ferries as well as stream satellite radio while I watched the beautiful Irish countryside go by on the Irish Rail trains. Even as I left to come home, my shuttle bus to the airport in Dublin had free wifi which let catch up on email, check the weather and send off some chats to let family know I was successfully on my way home.

On this trip I was able to access wifi easily several times a day at public locations, at every bed & breakfast I stayed in, and on almost every bus, train or boat that I took. This allowed me to keep in constant touch with family, keep on top of things at work, and to change travel plans quickly and easily when I needed, as well as making it much easier to play tourist and find my way round the different places I ended up.

Photo taken by author
Free and plentiful wifi is an amazing thing as a traveller. In small towns and large cities in the UK and Ireland I was able to easily connect to the Internet. In contrast, in Canada I sometimes have difficulty connecting in many large cities let alone in small towns. I know that affordable and quality Internet access offers much more than just benefits for travelers, but from a tourism perspective I can now testify to the importance and benefits it provides when visiting a new town or region and that alone should be more than enough for most communities to ensure that wifi is free and plentiful in their town.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The next big resource? Harnessing Digital Youth in rural Canada

image courtesy of creative commons
After a five year hiatus, I have started doing some work again in the area of rural youth, a critical issue for rural communities. One of the projects I am working on focuses on the importance of digital skills and the knowledge-based economy for rural youth. Economic development in rural Canada is based on resource development and economic opportunities are often developed based on the discovery of new or untapped resources and it seems that one of those untapped resources, especially in recent years is rural youth and their digital know-how. 

The value of digital youth
Digital youth represent an enormous resource that is that is unrecognized by businesses and communities. Youth have an almost inherent or natural understanding of digital technology. In his book Grown up Digital, Don Tapscott identifies that the digital immersion and upbringing of today's youth have created a generation of people that live and breath technology, a generation that has an intrinsic understanding of how to use the internet to search for information, communicate, and generate content. 

Unfortunately these skills and opportunities for youth are not often realized or acted on. A study by the telecommunications provider O2 valued the digital skills of 1 million unemployed youth in the United Kingdom at more than $10.5 billion in Canadian dollars. With the continued rise of the knowledge economy, the importance of digital skills will also keep growing, meaning this valuation of digital skills will only increase. Locally, a labour study in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba identified that computer skills are essential for all but the most unskilled jobs while at the same time youth are over-represented in those unskilled jobs with 83% of all youth under 25 being employed in unskilled jobs in the service sector. While digital skills are in high demand for operating and competing in an increasingly digital economy, there is not a significant recognition of the value of youth’s digital literacy or the opportunities right in front of rural communities. Digital youth are invaluable resource that businesses and organizations in rural communities are sitting on top of, a resource that has not been tapped and is in high demand.    

Developing a digital resource
Typically, youth need to migrate to urban centres to find appreciation and employment related to their digital skills. Richard Florida's urban focused creative economy model i based in part on the fact that creative, knowledge-based employment opportunities are only available in select urban areas. Creating digitally-related opportunities in rural communities could address two rural challenges at the same time: economic development and youth retention. 

Rural communities are always looking for additional or new economic opportunities, striving to maintain or grow the local economy as resource levels and commodity prices fluctuate. Building digital capacity is also an essential requirement for communities to participate in the knowledge-economy.  of effectively part. In addition, retaining their population, especially youth population is another challenge for many rural communities. Harnessing the natural resource of their youth's digital capacity creates opportunities to address both economic development and youth retention for rural communities.  

Organizations and businesses in rural communities can take advantage of their digital youth through creating or hiring youth for employment opportunities related to web development, information searchers and social media; through entrepreneurship support that encourages youth to start digital businesses in rural communities; and through engaging youth in community projects and organizations in roles that build a digital presence and effectively use social media.  

Some initiatives such as the Digital Youth Academy are already starting to mine this resource and create opportunities for youth, setting up internships that build on the natural digital capacity of youth and provide essential skills for businesses and organizations. Rural communities in Canada can do something similar and create local opportunities for digital youth to find employment and to get recognition for their skills, developing economic opportunities while providing youth opportunities and incentives to stay.  

Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. New York: Basic Books.
Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. McGraw-Hill. 

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

'The Internet of Elsewhere' works for countries - how about communities?

After I heard an interview with Cyrus Farivar on CBC radio, I read his book "Internet of Elsewhere" to better understand how the Internet has developed in four countries besides Canada. Farivar’s book describes how the Internet has emerged in four different countries and settings: South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran.This book was an interesting and informative read and did a great job of illustrating how geography, culture, economy and politics all impact the development of Internet in a given location. The main points I took away from this book are that the development  and more importantly the application of the Internet is shaped by its locale and context. Different Countries = Different Internet Profiles
Farivar demonstrates that the Internet has developed and been applied in very distinct ways in each of the four countries he examines, and it stands to reason that the same is true for other locations as well. These conclusions provide some interesting and important findings for Internet development in rural Manitoba and rural Canada. Within, the development field, participant input and context is essential for development work and will result in unique projects specific to a community or group. It should be as no surprise that the development of the Internet within a community exhibits similar traits.

Farivar describes more than 15 years of Internet development in South Korea, Senegal, Estonia and Iran; and the levels that have been achieved in each of these countries varies dramatically. While the differences in Internet infrastructure and adoption between the more and less developed countries in Farivar’s writings are eye opening, perhaps most informative is the different paths taken between South Korea and Estonia, two developed countries that have successfully reinvented themselves with the use of Internet and Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

Ranked 2nd and 33rd for ICT in the world respectively by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), South Korea and Estonia are espoused as leaders in ICT infrastructure and adoption. While the ITU identifies strong ICT access, skill and use in both countries, Farivar illustrates that the Internet is being used very differently in each country.

South Korea is a world leader in mobile phone connectivity and has the world’s premiere professional online gaming league. Estonia on the other hand is a pioneer in e-governance and electronic citizenship along with being a leader in offering free wifi to residents and tourists alike.

These countries are amongst the world leaders in ICT and Internet, but they have arrived there via different roads and their citizens have adopted the technology in different ways, creating unique Internet profiles or footprints.

Different Communities = Different Internet Reality
Applying Farivar’s conclusions, to develop effective connectivity and adaptation of the Internet in rural communities, it is necessary to understand the the community and its users. Understanding community characteristics and working with community residents to determine how they might use the Internet helps to increase the effectiveness of Internet infrastructure, skills and applications.   

When I worked at Function Four Ltd., I helped to develop an ICT assessment tool called the E-Index that measured infrastructure, affordability, skills, and utilization which I also describe here. When initially applied in 2004 to rural Manitoba communities, it revealed that levels of ICT varied significantly. Amongst the differences, some were not surprising, as in the case of ICT infrastructure - the number of computers, mobile phones and level of connectivity in southern communities near Winnipeg were higher than their more remote counterparts in northern Manitoba.

However, the E-Index also revealed that many northern communities had higher usage rates than their better connected neighbours to the south. Highlighted in both E-Index reports and in my Master’s thesis,  follow up discussions in the community of Misipawistick Cree Nation (MCN), revealed that households with computers in northern communities often had a lineup of people waiting to use computers. In 2004, this created the surprising reality where a community in which less than a ⅓ of households had computers, more than ⅔ of residents were using computers regularly.

MCN’s E-Index profile in 2004 is one of my favourite examples of how the Internet can be adopted so differently in communities. On one hand the E-Index revealed that this northern community had lower infrastructure and poorer affordability than its southern neighbours but in spite of this challenge, the residents of MCN still had had higher usage rates than many of the southern communities.

The purpose of this example is to demonstrate that differences in ICT exist at a community level as well as at a national level. In some cases, the differences might be as large and as surprising as they were for MCN in 2004. In other cases, it might be a situation where community A offers free wifi throughout the community while community B doesn’t have free wifi but offers free computer training. Each of these unique characteristics of community infrastructure, skills and applications impact the reality of Internet in those communities and differentiate them from their neighbours.

While communities side by side may appear to have similar Internet histories and characteristics, the realities of Internet in each community is different. Communities have different strategic plans and visions, how about digital strategies?

Unfortunately digital planning in many rural communities stops with achieving general connectivity, while communities should be developing specific digital plans that meets their infrastructure, skill and application goals. Do you know of any examples of rural communities having tailored digital strategies or plans?

Kelly (2008). Knowledge Planning, Community Development in the Knowledge-Based Economy. Thesis, Brandon University, Brandon.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Want a good return on your money? Try investing in Highspeed Rural Internet

Photo courtesy of mikeleeorg (flikr)
Why invest in rural broadband? What is the benefit of hooking up small rural communities? These are common questions when working in the field of rural Internet. While there are a wide range of important benefits from the Internet for rural communities, its the economic benefits and perceived lack thereof for rural broadband that drives most conversations. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Recipe for Rural Community Development in the New Economy

The recipe for rural development in the new economy is based on three key ingredients of knowledge, innovation and leadership. Various types of economic and social development in rural communities will require these three elements to be successful. An important starting point is to understand what each of these key ingredients are and how they play a role in the development of rural communities.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Convergence: bring all our ICT together to create new innovation and opportunities; now lets do the same for urban-rural

As part of my research manager duties at Brandon University, I was fortunate enough to attend the TRLabs Convergence conference in Winnipeg. The topic of convergence refers to the coming together of media, merging ICT experience and activities into a seamless experience. The day was spent looking at this convergence in ICT and exploring how it is going to impact our lives in the next 5-10 years. Many ideas and directions were discussed, revealing how the integration of technology in our lives is going to continue to increase. It's an exciting time and all of the speakers agreed that we are moving towards a society with more wireless devices that are used more and more throughout our lives, making existing activities easier and more efficient while letting us do completely new activities and interactions as well.

Wireless devices are already transforming how we work, play and communicate and this will continue with further integration of wireless devices into our lives. Many of the presenters talked about how blended or seamless experiences will continue to improve work, play and communication with networks working effortlessly to transfer content and data between devices and locations whether it be on our computers, smartphones, televisions or tablets. From working on documents to taking phone calls to watching movies or reading the news, our lives are going to increasingly get easier and easier as we are able configure how and where we want to do these activities. Presenters also agreed that many of these innovations are already here and that they will just continue to improve and become more widespread.

In addition to further integration and innovation around our current mobile devices, trends indicate that we are going to see a proliferation of wireless devices in our lives, from smart cars, smart appliances and smart apparel to RFID stickers that can be put on anything such as furnaces, pets and even toothbrushes. One presenter indicated that Ford is showcasing automobiles with monitored driver seats that can help control the car in the event of a driver heart attack. Another example provided home communication solutions that let families talk and video effortlessly with each other no matter where they were or what device they were using.

The unifying factor in all of these innovations and trends was the need for a strong connection to the Internet as the data demand from our devices grow. Not only will these innovations and devices require a strong Internet connection, there are is going to be an explosion of wireless devices putting further demand on our Internet infrastructure. A CISCO study was cited which predicted there will be more than 50 billion Internet connected devices by the year 2020, an average of 6.6 devices per person, far beyond the current average of 1.5 devices per person globally today. To put the speed of wireless device growth in perspective, it was only 5 years ago that there were more people than wireless devices and in 8 years from now there will be more than 6 times the number of devices as people.

As I listened throughout the day and as I thought about what I had learned, one question kept coming back to me: how do rural communities fit into this? I'm fortunate enough to have a solid Internet connection in my rural city of Portage la Prairie and I will be able to participate and enjoy society's increasing innovation and blended experience. Like many people, I already do some of these things; I use my smartphone as my alarm clock and to track exercise, I use a tablet for work and entertainment and we use our TV for watching movies from Netflix as often as watching regular TV.

I look forward to what's next in further integrating technology into our lives, but again I am fortunate enough to have the Internet connection to be able to participate in our changing reality. Just 10 or even 5 kilometers outside of my city though, people do not necessarily have the same ability. Having just recently explored the differences in broadband speeds, I know that just 5 km away, people can have difficulty accessing 5Mbps high speed, speeds that are 5 times slower than what myself and other urban residents in Manitoba are able to access.

As the Convergence conference illustrated, all indications are that we are going to increase our connectedness exponentially, both through our existing devices and by the explosion of new devices that become integrated into our lives. While the merits of being able to watch TV seamlessly on all our devices can be debated, the benefits to areas like health and education are exciting and promise to continue improving society. The unfortunate reality though is that not all rural communities and residents are currently able to realize the benefits of those innovations. As demands on Internet connections increase, those without Internet or with slower connections will be the first to miss out on the potential benefits. Ironically, rural communities are some of those places that would benefit the most from health, education and communication innovations, helping to address both geographic and demographic challenges. It will be important for Manitoba and Canada as a whole to think about and plan for this increasing connectedness and to increase efforts to make sure that all rural communities and residents are able to benefit from the related improvements and opportunities along with their urban neighbours.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Ingredients for e-ready communities

How do you describe the importance of the Internet? How about its potential for communities? That is a question I continue to try and answer after more than 10 years of working in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and rural development. Studies are beginning to calculate its impact with some results indicating that the Internet is responsible for 21% of economic growth in developed nations. Additionally, a study from the World Bank determines that every10% point increase in penetration of ICTs can impact economic growth by up to 1.4% for developing countries.

Unfortunately, in attempts to explain the Internet and its importance, it often comes across as a magic bullet that is going to solve all of the community’s problems (something I'm guilty of on occasion). The natural reaction to this is a “Build it and they will come” approach by community decision makers and governments. Many groups work hard to set up Internet infrastructure and access in a community and then hope for change.

Regrettably, the Internet is not a magic bullet and to fully realize its benefits, communities need to do more than just build ICT infrastructure. While building ICT infrastructure is a critical first step, successful adoption also requires building digital skills, and most importantly, it requires people actively using the Internet.

In 2001, I travelled to a northern community in Canada to help update the software on their community access site only to discover the computer for the access site was still in the original boxes. The local organization that had agreed to host the access site was very appreciative of the computer, but explained matter of fact that they had no idea how to set up the computer, and so it had remained in the box for six months until I arrived.

More than 10 years later, the lesson learned from this experience still holds true, setting communities up with computers and Internet is not the only or final step in unleashing the potential of the Internet for our rural communities. E-Ready communities are those communities that are able to take full advantage of the information society. In my master’s thesis on knowledge planning, I defined an e-ready community as “a community that provides its residents, businesses and organizations with the necessary tools and environment to be successful in the new knowledge-based world” (Kelly, pg 14).

 As the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) describes, it is the combination of ICT skills and ICT access which enables the use of ICT and the Internet. In turn, it is using technology that results in communities taking full advantage of the information society. Another ICT assessment is built on this model, but Function Four Ltd.’s E-Index focuses on community level rather than national level measurements of infrastructure, skills and use.  

Communities that want to effectively participate in the information society, to become e-communities need to address each of these steps of infrastructure, skills and use to fully realize the benefits of ICT. The ITU and the E-Index provide some examples of how to determine progress towards effective engagement in the information society with the ITU focusing on country measurements while the E-Index concentrates at a community level.

Figure 1 ITU Measuring the Information Society 2011

Infrastructure and access
The ITU describes ICT infrastructure and access as the presence and availability of computers, cell phones, fixed phone lines and Internet within a community. While the ITU measures fixed phone lines, it acknowledges that they are becoming less and less important for accessing the Internet and may be removed from infrastructure measurements in the future. The E-Index, a community ICT Index that builds locally on the ITU’s efforts, factors in the presence of more traditional ICTs such as radios and televisions to create an overall measure of ICT infrastructure and access.

Infrastructure and access are often measured by ratios of ICT per 100 people to provide a comparable benchmark between ICTs and between geographies. This type of measurement also provides helpful context for understanding the importance and role of ICTs; for example the country of Taiwan has the highest rate of mobile phones per capita in the world with more than 100 mobile phones per 100 people meaning that many people have multiple phones.

Communities wanting to participate more in the information society need to determine which ICTs are the most beneficial for them and focus on measuring the level of those ICTs. Access becomes an issue when certain groups or parts of the community have unequal access to those ICTs due to issues of cost, control or availability. Recent data shows that in the US, only 46% of the poorest households have broadband access in the home – that figure jumps to 80% in houses with more than $50,000 in household income and to 96% for the wealthiest households.

ICT skills are also referred to as digital literacy or capacity, typically referring to the ability to use computers and the Internet. While ideally measured through surveys or even testing, the ITU and other agencies often use education enrollments as proxies for ICT skills, measuring capacity through enrollment rates in secondary and tertiary education. The E-Index uses a tiered skill tree for each ICT grouping skills into level of difficulty and measuring survey participant

Communities are better situated to use surveys and even training requests as indicators of ICT skills. Determining the level of comfort and expertise with ICTs locally is an important step in helping to increase and encourage ICT use.

Using ICTs is the only way for a community to benefit from them and to move towards becoming e-communities. Computers, cell phones and the Internet provide the main opportunities for community use. As a result, the ITU focuses its measurements on these technologies, tallying broadband and cellphone subscriptions as their main indicators of use. The E-Index on the other hand focuses on individual time use of technology to help determine a community’s ICT use profile.

Its important for communities to understand current use patterns in their community before trying to focus efforts on a specific ICT or outcome. Is the community strongly engaged in social media or are the majority of residents focused on productivity uses such as word processors and spreadsheets. Once communities know where they are currently in terms of ICT use, it’s much easier to determine and plan for new goals.

The first step in any recipe is to make sure you have the all the ingredients, and both the ITU and E-Index have identified that the necessary ingredients for engagement in the information society are ICT infrastructure, skills and use. Providing Computers and broadband alone will not create e-ready communities, but it is an important step, and the first step in the recipe for creating communities engaged in the information society. 

Kelly (2008). Knowledge Planning, Community Development in the Knowledge-Based Economy. Thesis, Brandon University, Brandon.