The first GovCamp specifically to focus on the challenges of digital participation in island communities, IslandGovCamp 2012, took place in Orkney (and on the internet) recently, writes Sweyn Hunter. It was organised by the Orkney ICT Forum, a professional association for people and organisations offering web, ICT and media and communications services in Orkney, which has recently been formed to facilitate collaboration and innovation around the broad theme of ‘Digital Orkney’.
The GovCamp format has been around for a few years now, with events such as UKGovCamp in London, scotgovcamp in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, govcamp Scotland (out of which arose the Scottish Digital Particpation Charter) and BlueLightCamp (a UK-wide govcamp for the emergency services) showing the variety of styles the basic concept can support.
Most GovCamps can be described as ‘self-organised unconferences’, with those intending to participate collaborating in advance, and reaching consensus at the event, to decide the agenda, topics of discussion and activity to be covered. Following participation in some of these events, members of the Orkney ICT Forum decided that an event focusing mainly (but not exclusively) on island communities might attract interest, and the IslandGovCamp brand was born.
From the start, attempts were made to engage interest not just from Scottish Islands, but from all the British Isles, and from any others willing to collaborate who might have an interest in islands and islanders around the world. On the day, participants attended both in person at Orkney College UHI in Kirkwall and via the internet, to see speakers from across the globe, including Sue Wells, from Christchurch City Council, New Zealand (who participated via the internet), and Duncan McKenzie from Northern Constabulary, the police force of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
As anyone who has lived in an island community (or offered services from elsewhere) will know, there are lots of advantages and disadvantages to being based in that environment, especially if the community’s population is relatively small, or its geographical location is regarded by others as remote or peripheral. Orkney has a population of around 20,000, making the number of citizens served by Orkney Islands Council the smallest in Scotland (and the second smallest in the UK, after the 2,000 people served by the Isles of Scilly Council).
Although communications links (by sea, air and telecommunications) have improved steadily over the last 50 or 100 years, it is still the case that travel to and from Orkney to the central belt of Scotland, London or the rest of Europe is relatively expensive and time-consuming, leading (on the one hand) to a great eagerness to embrace new technologies to minimise the impact of ‘peripherality’, and (on the other hand) to frustration at the difficulty in engaging regularly with regional, national and international partners – many of whom can easily meet and exchange ideas by travelling relatively short distances at relatively low cost, in ways which effectively exclude the cost-effective participation of islanders.
There are some notable and very successful exceptions, with people and organisations from Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles (and the other Scottish Islands) being involved in many specific projects over the years, but until recently the practical and financial difficulties of being physically present at projects with new ideas, while continuing to live and work normally in the islands, have been formidable for most people.
With low-cost technologies now readily available, and improvements to the digital connectivity in most places in the Scottish Islands, there are now – possibly for the first time ever – opportunities for the deployment of the new low-cost digital hardware, software and social media to sustain and develop public and third-sector services in island communities, and to ensure that all economic opportunities are considered to develop island economies.
Approaches and strategies for doing these things have arisen with each generation of new technology. What is unusual now is that – if we can work out how – it should be possible to make geography and travel much less of a barrier to participation than it has been.
Essentially, the main aim of IslandGovCamp is to provide a space where those of us who live in places which are not (and never can be) at the geographical centre of national or global activity can use new technologies to build solutions and relationships to minimise the impact of the stretches of sea that separate us from other islands and continents.
Sweyn Hunter is database support officer at Orkney Islands Council. More information on IslandGovCamp can be found at: http://islandgovcamp.blogspot.co.uk/ .
NOTE: Article originally published in E-Government Bulletin issue 347.