The rural data gap and the digital divide
The division between rural and urban areas is not new. Citizens in rural areas were one of the last places to receive good electricity and phone service in the early 1900s. The government then ensured these facilities as it considered electricity and phone services essential. Currently, many homes in rural areas struggle to get a stable and reliable internet connection. Several rural experts from across Europe state that the government needs to step in to create financial incentive for companies to deliver good internet connection in these areas. The same statement is applicable for data. There is limited availability and access to data, let alone open data, available from rural areas in comparison to urban areas, and this is often not tackled in digital strategies. Oftentimes, governments do not have a clear overview of the digital and data services available in rural areas because these are not always properly mapped.
However, there is evidence that investments in digitalisation and the data economy in rural areas is worthwhile and can support rural areas. Approximately, 27 percent of all EU citizens live in rural or non-urban areas. For example, an estimate of a third of all the citizens in Ireland and France live in rural areas. Thereby, the rural economy is also important for the EU. Agriculture receives around 40 percent of the EU budget and covers 47 percent of EU territory. Forestry accounts for 1 percent of the total EU GDP and is also important for tourism. Lastly, fishery is one of the key investment areas for developing sustainability and growth across the EU, with €6400M allocated to this from 2014-2020. Thus, both in terms of citizen representation and economic benefits, it is worthwhile investing in open data in rural areas.
Incentives to bridge the digital and data divide
The European Data Portal’s (EDP) Analytical Report titled “Enabling Smart Rural: The Open Data Gap” was commissioned by the European Commission in 2019. The study addresses the digital divide between rural and urban areas with the aim to share more knowledge on this issue and to provide solutions. There are six key recommendations described in the report:
- Support local champions to establish and institutionalise the processes and practices of open data in rural administrations, with close relationships to urban open data groups (this may be the national portal, a nearby city portal or an activist group).
- Highlight the importance of the agricultural High Value Datasets (e.g. the agricultural trade statistics, the agricultural and rural development budget and the farm accountancy data network data) to the member states that have been identified as having a gap between their agricultural percentage of GDP and their open agricultural datasets.
- Create collaborative links with complementary data owners, including Not for Profits, NGOs, researchers and private organisations, that allow data to be opened and made available together.
- Invest in understanding the key factors of smart regions that mean they are more fit for purpose than simply being smart cities with sprawling reach, in order to identify key data to open.
- Establish links with urban areas, via such instruments as hubs or universities with complementary interests. There are already examples of this in the agricultural sector, for instance, the Wageningen University Masterclass Accelerator in collaboration with Regio FoodValley.
- Identify and support a wider range of rural-specific challenges, such as out-migration, health solutions that address distance, and food provenance.
Lastly, the experts propose a solution to bridge the open data gap through investing in smart rural areas and smart regions in order to connect the urban and rural areas.
The social economic consequences for rural areas during the COVID-19 pandemic
The consequences of the digital divide and data gap in rural areas are even more striking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many issues have now been highlighted as they can no longer be ignored or remain below the radar. For example, many schools are facing difficulties teaching virtual school classes. Children that need to follow virtual school classes from home often do not have a laptop or do not have stable and reliable internet connection in rural areas. Thus, there is a danger that children from rural areas will be disadvantaged more than children in urban areas because of this digital divide. Moreover, the lack of open datasets and data infrastructure (such as regional portals) also makes it more difficult for health and government experts to map the spread of COVID-19 in rural areas.
New initiatives, such as those from the Rural Services Network in the United Kingdom and Regio FoodValley in the Netherlands, appeal to government decision-makers. Moreover, these initiatives try to create more awareness for the digital divide and data gap while supporting their local rural communities. For example, the Rural Services Network, organises various events such as phoneline access, webinars, and seminars on access and connectivity. Also Regio FoodValley organises webinars on how to organise socially distant working spaces on farms.
Webinar: The Open Data Rural Gap
On 28 April, the EDP team hosted a webinar on open data in rural areas. The speakers were:
- Gefion Thuermer from King's College London,
- Johanna Walker from University of Southampton,
- Jos Berkvens from Regio FoodValley, and
- Daniel Worth from Rural Services Network.
In this webinar, the speakers discussed research into the availability of rural open data and its supply across Europe, with several examples. This included insights into defining what rural is and how digitisation has impacted the availability, access and (re-)use of open rural data. The webinar is available online in three parts:
- Part 1 focuses on research into the availability of rural open data and its supply across Europe with a deep dive into aforementioned research “Enabling Smart Rural”. Moreover, speakers shared insights into defining what rural is and how digitisation has impacted the availability, access and (re-)use of open rural data.
- In part 2, speakers discuss practical examples and insights into how rural open data is used to overcome the open rural data gap. In addition, there are discussions on how COVID-19 has impacted agricultural open data and insights are shared on how open government data from rural areas can help to shape communities and be used to benchmark development in different areas.
- The final part of the webinar is the Q&A section.
Thank you to our participants and speakers for joining the webinar. To learn more, read the full analytical report on open rural data on the EDP and watch the webinar online. Aware of rural open data examples or stories? Share them with us via mail, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn to stay up to date!