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Technology, the Good Shepherd - How are rural communities facing life in isolation

How is technology being used in rural communities to keep isolated villages connected? Are traditional institutions missing a chance to reach new audiences?

In the last few days and weeks my social feeds have been flooded with guides and tips to working from home. I’ve read articles on London’s response to Coronavirus, and the colossal undertaking at NHS Nightingale to build a temporary super hospital. There is a focus on urban populations, which isn’t surprising given London is the epicentre of our outbreak, and the jarring visuals of normally busy landmarks now stood eerily silent. 

However a significant proportion of the population live in rural areas (20.7% according to the 2015 census). How are these largely ignored communities coping with the Covid-19 restrictions?

First let me be transparent about my interest here; my parents live in a village on the top of a hill in an area of outstanding natural beauty (the North Pennines). Speaking to them over the last few weeks it has been clear how the challenges they face are significant and different; perhaps more so than those I face with my wife in London. For a start we have a Co-op, Asda, (two) Tesco Metro, Tesco Extra, (two) Waitrose superstores, and a Sainsbury’s Local all within 20 minutes walk. On top of that there are countless convenience stores. Don’t worry, we can get loo roll! My parents have one (part-time) community shop they can walk to, however they also run it and it’s staffed by volunteers, all of whom are over-60.

With tighter restrictions perhaps necessary to control the rate of infection it might become the only physical shop the village can access. A two mile limit on travel cuts their village adrift from Hexham; the nearest town six miles away. However the shop has some specific systems that volunteers need training on. My Mum has spent a large portion of the past week building online training courses, complete with videos. This is low-tech yes, but it’s giving the shop an ability to be agile and survive.

Social distancing isn’t such a problem when you’re surrounded by fields. But in an older community, cut off from the world on a hill, where community driven groups (think Badminton, Film Club, the community owned-pub Quiz, Leek Club) keep everyone connected, it’s hard to keep spirits up. One institution that has always been the glue in communities in traditional parts of the country is the Church. 

Say what you will about religion in the 21st century, it has always had an important pastoral role. My Dad is a vicar and spends huge amounts of time invested in community gatherings; coffee mornings, ‘messy’ Church aimed at families, stitching the fabric of rural life together.

Now of course churches are empty and locked. For many already vulnerable members of the village this will deepen their level of isolation. Justin Welby has already moved services online and it’s a move my Dad has had to copy. “The Moorland Group of Churches” Facebook page has become a site with acts of worship and thoughts for the day. I found that I was talking my Dad through what tech was best to use (“stick with the phone over a digital camera”) and the best sites to transfer large files. I can’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed to see that Justin Welby’s service was played so strongly towards a traditional, probably elderly, congregation; sung prayer is not inclusive! This crisis is forcing innovation, something the church resists traditionally, and it’s an opportunity to welcome a wider audience in. I hope this isn’t squandered, or the wider opportunity for tech to be an inclusive church itself.

We get so caught up with the stories that focus on bleeding-edge tech. Automation, AI, VR, but right now I feel there is a quiet, grey revolution going on in sleepy villages and towns. Tech has often been seen as too complicated or scary to many outside the industry. Hearing that my own parents are embracing it suggests that we have a moment in time to position technology as the wonderful, community enhancing tool it is. It’s a chance to spread the good news.  

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