Can "Rural" learn from "Urban"?
Cities and urban areas have become avid users and sources of data, largely under the catch-all and loosely defined term smart cities. Open data is considered a "defining element" of smart cities because data is vital for cities and citizens. Due to its significance, projects such as the Urban Data Platform utilise open data with the aim of speeding up the adoption of common open urban data platforms, ensuring that "300 million European citizens are served by cities with competent urban data platforms, by 2025". This focus on cities makes sense:
- They have a dense population which can be reached comparatively easily;
- Infrastructural changes in smaller geographical areas can have substantial impact; and
- In many countries, such as Spain, Cyprus, Malta, and the United Kingdom, reaching the urban population effectively means reaching 50% of the entire population.
But what does the term smart cities imply for the 27% of EU citizens who live in rural (non-urban) areas? While many densely populated EU Member States have a very high proportion of citizens living in urban areas, the opposite is also true, especially in most Central and Eastern European countries. Over half of Lithuanians, nearly half of Slovenians, Hungarians, and Croatians, live in rural areas. But also, in more Western states, such as Ireland and France, over a third of citizens live in rural areas.
One approach to tackling the domination of the urban paradigm is to directly import the tools and techniques of smart cities and big data into the rural environment. For instance, the Stonehaven Rural Co-op project in Scotland claims that, "Rural - it's just a low-density city." This implies that smart processes, technologies, and activities that succeed in cities can be successfully implemented in the rural setting. Another example is the Scottish initiative: Smart Fintry - a recently completed project that aimed to bring urban innovation to a village in Stirlingshire.
However, there are challenges in transposing urban practices to a rural setting. Some of the key areas of smart city investment, such as those to do with traffic and parking management and multi-modal transport, are far less applicable in rural settings. In comparison to their urban or suburban counterparts, rural populations tend to experience (negative) gaps in education, income, device availability, and internet access. Furthermore, according to the Rural Open Data Project, "few if any rural local governments provide open data, and little is known about how open data affects rural communities. If there is a benefit to communities from open data policies, it is likely that rural communities are benefiting less than urban ones, if at all."
Results of examining the availability and role of rural open data in Europe
The European Data Portal's (EDP) report "Enabling Smart Rural: The Open Data Gap" focuses specifically on leveraging insights from existing research and use cases. By seeking to understand and define 'rural' open data, the quality, quantity, uses, and barriers to use can be examined. Two types of rural open data are discussed - those about people living in rural areas ('rural populations') and those about traditionally rural industries ('rural economy').
The report examines the collection, availability, and use of open data in rural areas through the lens of a smart city. By doing so, the report asks what the prioritisation of the development of services and products for urban populations and industries means for the rural populations and rural industries and their specific requirements. It finds that these are not currently being met and are insufficiently examined or supported by open data, except for agricultural, fishery, and forestry data in more urban Member States, which are thriving. Moreover, the report suggests that a smart city approach should not be simply transposed onto the rural environment, but that there is value in smart region approaches that recognise the relationship between cities and their surrounding countryside.
Recommendations for rural open data
The report recommends the following activities directed at Member States with larger rural populations:
- The institutionalisation of open data skills and knowledge;
- Increasing awareness of High Value Datasets;
- Engaging with complementary data owners such as non-governmental organisations and researchers;
- Developing skills links with urban areas; and
- The creation of hackathons or challenges that specifically target rural issues.
In addition, the report provides six key recommendations under three themes to policy makers who wish to encourage the use of data at various levels of government at the rural level:
- Data Collection
- 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.
- Highlight the importance of the agricultural High Value Datasets to the Member States that have been identified as having a gap between their agricultural percentage of GDP and their open agricultural datasets.
- Data Opening
- 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.
- Data Reuse
- Establish links with urban areas, via such instruments as hubs or universities with complementary interests.
- Identify and support a wider range of rural-specific challenges, such as out-migration, health solutions that address distance, and food provenance.
The need for institutionalisation of the commitment to, and appropriate skills for, open data remains a key barrier to the publication and use of open data in both rural areas and sectors. It is crucial that rural populations and industrial sectors are not (unintentionally) excluded from the benefits of the data economy. To do this, smart rural must become something more real than a few isolated projects and a faint replica of smart cities. The greatest opportunity for this lies in smart regions that create the necessary links between urban and rural, while acknowledging the differences.
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