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Rural Development in
the Information Society


When Information Technology breaks the isolation and creates jobs:
live local, work global

by Nino Paterno [*]

Resolutely counting on advanced communications technologies, the Western Isles, Skye & Lochalsh LEADER group has helped to create more than 200 teleworking jobs in the Hebrides, in North-West Scotland. The distribution of these technologies also meets the approval of traditional economic actors : crofters, fishermen, craftsmen and tourist operators. On the occasion of the LEADER seminar entitled "Changing Job Scene and New Technologies" (June 1998), an Italian journalist visited this 'tip of the world connected to the world'.


'Graphic designer sought for expanding multimedia production company situated in the Western Isles of Scotland. We are a small company with 17 staff, and our field of activities includes television production, services linked to communication technologies, graphic design and photography. Send CV to ken@eolas.co.uk.' One job offer among 30 or so others found in October 1998 at http://www.hebrides.com, the website for the Hebrides, which claims to hold the title of the 'most extensive rural site in the world'.

From the skies, the Hebrides or Western Isles, in the extreme north-west of Scotland, resemble an enormous green field sprinkled with glassy waters set in an almost supernatural asymmetry, so beautiful that it could quite easily take one's breath away. Here, geographical insularity and isolation have preserved the environment and certain original local traditions, as many assets which are beginning to put an end to, even reverse, the multisecular trend to move elsewhere : more and more young people are deciding to remain on the islands, which are also seeing new residents coming to settle, drawn by the genuineness of this 'tip of the world' and, for some people, by the job opportunities offered by advanced communication technologies.

"The population of the Hebrides has the highest proportion of people with higher education qualifications in the United Kingdom," says Carola Bell, Director of the Western Isles, Skye & Lochalsh LEADER group, "but the geographical isolation of the islands was considerably limiting the job opportunities available. Teleworking seemed to us to provide a realistic solution to the problem : we were able to anticipate putting this supply of highly-skilled workers into contact with clients from afar, using telecommunications technologies combined with the flexible working culture of the islanders."

As a former sales representative for an IT company, Donnie Morrison is among those who chose to set themselves up on the islands : "I was on a business trip to Spain in 1989. While talking about portable computers, someone said that in ten years' time many jobs would be able to be done in the comfort of one's own home. The idea first of all left me somewhat sceptical, but then I started to think about it, and finally toyed with the idea of returning to live in my region, in other words here. Along with my family, we moved to the Isle of Lewis in 1994. That year, I was made responsible for carrying out the LEADER study into the local possibilities of distance working, the interest of the inhabitants in the method, the skills available, the potential markets, etc."

This research-action led to the creation of the ICT ("Western Isles Information and Communication Technology Advisory Service") with the financial support of the ERDF (Objective 1), the Western Isles Council and the Western Isles Enterprise local development agency which has managed LEADER since 1992. Donnie Morrison was appointed General Manager of the structure. The ICT was able to create a file of potential teleworkers : a register of some 500 people (600 in 1998), either residents or people wanting to move to the islands, was drawn up and their skills listed. Since no local company existed in the teleworking sector, the ICT created a limited liability company on the island of Benbecula, 'Lasair Ltd', capable of managing contracts secured from contractors anywhere in the world.

Lasair

In 1995, Lasair was able to respond to an initial invitation to tender and landed an important contract with an American publisher specialising in indexing and abstracting business journals. The reviews (in printed form) are dispatched from California by courier and are then distributed by Lasair to 35 people, 30 of whom are women, who work at home summarising the publications, indexing the various articles, adapting them to the specific characteristics of the electronic layout and putting them on the Internet. The whole process corresponds to a five- to ten-day cycle.

The nature of the work means that these teleworking posts constitute an activity with real added value, which goes far beyond simple data entry and involves skills in editing, re-writing, re-reading, computer graphics, etc. "An experimental contract that we tried out in 1996 with the Scottish Health Board proved to us that purely 'mechanical' data entry was non-profitable because it faced fierce competition from Third World countries", points out Donnie Morrison.

Numerous other contracts have since been concluded, including : the production of digests and the indexing and abstracting of publications of the Home Office Forensic Science Departments ; the conversion onto CD-ROM of all the issues of the 'Scots Law Times', a Scottish legal journal ; the conversion to electronic mediums (Internet, CD-ROM) of numerous scientific works edited by the prestigious Oxford University Press (a two-year contract was concluded in January 1997 whereby approximately 50 people are employed on a full-time basis).

Lasair therefore coordinates the services of around 100 freelance teleworkers while assuring quality control. LEADER has put up around ECU 35 000 to provide specialist training to the teleworkers. In time, the skills needed to join this teleworking pool have evolved : the ability to write good English is a must ; scientific or medical knowledge, for example, has supplanted purely IT knowledge (this can be acquired in the context of training programmes adapted to the specific requirements of each contract).

Virtual Hebrides (http://www.hebrides.com)

The success of Lasair has been emulated and other initiatives using IT have flourished in the islands. Among these is the 'Eolas' company which, with LEADER funding of ECU 43 000, has created the 'Virtual Hebrides' website (http://www.hebrides.com), a real encyclopaedia of the islands through the sheer diversity of the information that it contains, while also providing very concrete services to users : job offers, tourist reservations, etc.

After three years of multimedia activity (Eolas used to only be involved in audiovisual productions), the company's achievements are quite impressive : 180 teleworking contracts, 18 full-time employees, 4 servers and a mirror-site in Glasgow, a department specialising in software development and the creation of databases, etc.

In 1998, the ICT was busy putting the finishing touches to its new jewel : a call centre in a 750m2 building in the Stornoway Business Park. The cost of the investment was ECU 2 million. Even before work had been completed, the centre signed a contract with a telephone operator which should create 70 jobs and generate a turnover of approximately ECU 1 million in its first year. The centre will also house the ICT's offices to maximise comfort and, in particular, efficiency in terms of the services provided.

Dissemination

Alastair Nicolson, Head of New Technologies at the Skye & Lochalsh Enterprise, the development agency for the two areas of the same name, remains realistic : "what heavily penalise our area are the major communication difficulties, both within the archipelago and on the Scottish mainland. A business trip can sometimes take a whole day by car : the roads are very narrow and it is often necessary to catch several ferries. IT brings each of us closer to the other while also connecting us to the rest of the world, by finally eliminating the age-old isolation that these islands have had to endure for so long".

Within this logic of opening up the area, the LEADER group is helping to disseminate information technology throughout the islands. Isolated villages are therefore gradually becoming equipped with IT centres. In Port of Ness, on the northern point of the Isle of Lewis, a multimedia room with 10 computers provides access for all the inhabitants to the entire range of possibilities offered by communication technologies, from the most entertaining to the most educational : Lewis Castle College, part of the University of the Highlands & Islands, has set up a distance training programme while the installation of a video-conference suite allows the islanders to follow courses given by the University or to consult the library of this distance training network, comprising a dozen higher education establishments, on line. This equipment also enables the board of directors of the LEADER group to meet regularly, avoiding long and arduous journeys through the archipelago.

"Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for these villages to have such services", remarks Carola Bell. "In the beginning, we had no idea of the impact that IT would have on people. When LEADER I began, we had to form ourselves surrounded by the mistrust inherent in island mentality. Consequently, our action was firstly centred on promoting local culture. The first objective of the distance education network was therefore to promote the Gaelic language, which ten years' ago was becoming obsolete but is now spoken, read and written by 70% of the population. This promotion of the Scottish language led to the creation of cultural products in Gaelic. We gradually geared our support towards modernising traditional production activities : crofting, sheep farming, the processing of fishing products, weaving tweed and tourism. As for telework, it finds fertile ground here. Establishing it has been made easier by the strong tradition of multi-activity which exists in the islands. Developing it essentially requires assistance in terms of training that we adapt to the specific requirements of each project. Downstream, the electronic commerce of local products and tele-booking for welcome structures have the support of craftsmen and tourist operators, who are fiercely independent and have been used to managing on their own for years."

In fact, the interest in new technologies largely goes beyond the circle of teleworkers. All the traditional economic actors encountered - farmers, fishermen, hoteliers, craftsmen - share the same belief. "Communication technologies can be extremely useful for craftsmen in terms of production, marketing, innovation, etc.," say Anne Campbell and Margaret McKay, two weavers from the island of Harris where the famous tweed of the same name is produced. Two ceramists, Alex and Sue Blair, agree : "Applied to our sector, these technologies can create additional jobs". John, an employee at the Stornoway Employment Agency, also has no doubt in this respect : "the main challenge, i.e. to facilitate young people's entry to the labour market and do everything to help this, by eliminating distances or modernising production techniques, conceals a basic strategic value. All support and resources available, including LEADER, must converge towards this objective."

The strategy of developing an area's natural, cultural and human resources by using the financial and technological support available is already well under way in the Hebrides. This has been expressed through the creation of several hundred jobs. As far as optimal use of information and communication technologies is concerned, disadvantaged rural areas now have a model over there, far away on that archipelago of the borders of Europe.


WESTERN ISLES, SKYE & LOCHALSH LEADER

Surface area : 5 600 km2 (Western Isles : 2 901 km2)
Population : 41 000 inhabitants (Western Isles : 31 456 inhabitants)
LEADER II funding : ECU 7 500 000
EU : ECU 3 125 000 - Other public funds : ECU 3 125 000
Private funds : ECU 1 250 000

Western Isles, Skye & Lochalsh LEADER Programme
3 Harbour View
Cromwell Street Quay
UK-Stornoway (Isle of Lewis)
HS1 2DF (Scotland)
Tel : +44 1851 703 703
Fax : +44 1851 704 130
E-mail : wislleader@sol.co.uk
Web : www.hebrides.com/europa/leader/index.htm


[*] Journalist and Editor-in-Chief of La Freccia Verde (The Green Arrow), a monthly economic, social and cultural review of local development based in Sicily.
Web :
www.stepim.it/STEPIM/lafrecciaverde
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source: LEADER Magazine nr.19 - Winter, 98-99


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