the electronic village shop – enhancing local community through global network

The internet seems to be about remote connections, international communities and globalisation. We may surf the web, scan blogs or talk to friends across the globe, but may not know the person next door. Indeed in Channel 4’s recent documentary “My Street“, Sue Bourne, who produces TV documentaries seen by millions, gets to meet her neighbours for the first time.

But there is another side, where global networks could help local communities to grow and reconnect with one another. Some things are happening grass roots up, some need changes in public policy or intervention, and some may never happen.

The electronic village shop is a dream I’ve had for now well over 15 years, and may happen, or may not … and maybe definitely will not if I don’t do something myself! However, there are other signs of local connections growing.

I have talked about these issues and the electronic village shop at different times over the years1, but have never previouslly written about them, so eventually …

the electronic village shop … the first dream

Around 17 years ago we moved to a small village, Skirwith, nestled under the shadow of Cross Fell and the North Pennines. The house we moved into had once, many many years before, been a village shop, but there had been another shop and Post Office that had closed only a few years previously. Even the village pub, a traditional place for locals, not a modern evening-out-from-the-city place, also closed.

When the village shop closes a part of the community dies. But for the old or less well off … typically the real locals farmworkers and those who have lived and retired there … it is even harder. many of our neighbours had no car and the bus service ran once a week! Collecting your pension or buying food meant a 3 mile walk to the closest Post Office and bus stop, and hoping for a hitched lift on the way. The only saving grace was the mobile shop, library and butchers vans that came round each week.

The economics of a village shop are tenuous; small customer base, small premises and restricted stock make it hard to make a profit. Could information technology make a difference to this?

At the time it was pre-Web, for those outside Universities or big companies, pre-Internet and certainly pre-Tesco-online. However, in big businesses just-in-time manufacturing was still a hot topic, with short inventories enabled by better processes and better IT.

So was born the dream of the electronic village shop.

baked beans!One of the problems a small shop faces is that in order to have half a dozen cans of beans on the shelf, there needs to be a box of beans in the store room. I imagined small shops with bar code reader and computer (OK heavy investment at the time!) with inventory software that once or twice daily dialled in (remember no permanent networks … and this is the countryside!) and connected with some sort of central or regional computer. Many shops are franchises of a chain such as Spar, Mace or Coop, so this would be the point of contact and at a regional distribution centre a picking line would create individual daily deliveries, not of boxes or crates, but 3 tins of beans, 2 packets of soup, simply keeping the shelves stocked. Store rooms become extra shop space, product range expands, less wastage so lower prices.

Once the village shop had a computer, it could become the information hub of the local community (recall still the days of few home computers), small scale printing, email services etc. The local community revitalised by a global (or at least regional!) connection.

While the dream was born in a village, this all holds equally for small corner shops in cities, especially large estates: again often so important for the marginalised – the old and the poor, who cannot get to the out-of-town superstore.

the dream continued … Mrs Goggins as information scientist

Mre GogginsIf anything things have got worse over the years. Often village shops were also sub-post offices adding an extra strand to their income and, perhaps as important, meaning that those collecting pensions and benefits at the Post Office counter then spent it in the shop. But Government has moved benefit payments away from the counter and the Post Office has been closing smaller sub-Post Offices across the country.

However, the opportunities have also grown. Instead of slow and expensive dial up connections, the web and ubiquitous broadband. Furthermore online shopping shows that small scale deliveries are not only possible, but that the infrastructure is there.

For food, instead of daily dial ups for staple sticks, it is possible to think of more personalised services. Imagine walking into the shop on your way to work in the morning and saying “I’d like to do lasagne for dinner tonight”. In the evening when you return, at the shop they have fresh pasta and ragu, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, in just the right quantities.

Instead of boxes left soggy on your doorstep, the shop is of course also the ‘drop off centre’ and in the process reducing the number of delivery points and fuel use… indeed in an environmentally aware future we should see integrated delivery mechanisms across different wholesalers so that there is just ONE delivery for everything.

Some of us are net savvy, knowing where to go to shop on the net, what is safe and what is not, but for the rest … welcome Mrs Goggins, the friendly postmistress from Postman Pat, now becomes the information scientist helping you find things in the web.

While the financial benefits of offering any general computing services (printing etc.) have disappeared in the UK, the social needs are more pressing. Those who are transport-poor and cannot get out of the local community to shop are often also information poor and do not have internet access or IT skills. Imagine … Mr Dickens has an email address at the village shop. When his grandchildren sends him emails, Mrs Goggins prints them and then when he wants to reply she scans his letters and they are emailed back to his grandchildren. If eGovernment is to reach beyond the city, this is an obvious locus.

where we are now

Wray vllage shop photo displayIn the village of Wray, the village shop does have its own electronic display, supported by various projects at Lancaster University (ISS NRSP Unit and CASIDE project). This is not integrated into the business side of the shop in the way I have envisaged; in this case the village is large enough and prosperous enough to support the shop anyway. However, the photo display does act as a locus for community activity, with pictures of the old village, the annual scarecrow festival … and even the maggot race.

It is common now to also find village shops acting as cybercafes especially in far-flung areas and tourist destinations and also in some cases as hubs from which local products are sold worldwide. However, eCommerce if anything is bypassing not just village shops, but the high street too.

While not a physical shop, NetNeighbours does hit some of the same vision of Mrs Goggins the information scientist. In this scheme volunteers, themselves mostly retired, act as mediators. Housebound elderly clients ring their NetNeighbour with their weekly shopping list. the NetNeighbour then accesses one of the online supermarkets and orders the food.

NetNeighbours had to overcome problems with payments as Internet shopping depends on credit cards and assumes that the person entering details is the customer. Email systems are equally bad at supporting proxies, agents … or even secretaries. The model of the middle-class professional user at their home or office computer is deeply embedded in much of current software infrastructure and financial services.

local connections

Moving away from the physical village shop there are many opportunities for global IT systems to help local communities or establish local connections. In the Blacksburg Electronic Village (supported by Virginia Tech), the Neighborhoods page says:

The Neighborhoods Project is a joint effort between the Town of Blacksburg and the Blacksburg Electronic Village. The goal of the project is to foster better communication among neighborhood residents and between residents, Town staff, and elected officials.

In my own thinking and writing in 2000/2001 on the changing digital economy and in particular density diversity, I pondered how economies will or could change as money loses its traditional role as mediator of information about supply and demand. Increasingly this informational role of money is being supplanted by digital information such as online orders and loyalty cards. Centralised distribution was necessary when cash was the main means of information transfer, but now we can imagine more local-local commerce enabled by digital communications. I can now find the farmer who has potatoes on my doorstep.

This local-local connectivity that I looked forward to is happening with schemes such as freecycle and Craig’s list. Also in my PhD student Haliyana‘s studies of photolog sites, she found that they were not just used for remotely viewing photos of friends and family, but were also a catalyst for local social interactions2.

across the world

The problems of the UK village are clearly not the same as rural Mexico, India or Ethiopia; however issues of information poverty, not least access to government and health, is if anything far more pressing. There maybe common cause, common policy implications and common technical issues between rural Britain and rural Berundi.

Some while ago I was told about a project that linked electronically villages in the UK, India and eastern Africa. In India someone posted that their hen was ill and in Africa someone recognised the illness and suggested a treatment. Later one of the African villagers was himself ill and needed a blood transfusion, but was of an unusual blood group. There was no one locally with compatible blood, and the problem was reported on the electronic system. There was another village in the project, just 20 miles away, but far enough not to have any regular communications. Seeing the post a man in the second village, who had the required blood type, cycled the 20 miles and donated blood. Local connectivity through global communications.

This was a pilot project, but more substantial interventions are happening; I found the following in a recent UK Government report:

Drishtee – the Hindi for vision – is the name of a business that was set up in 2000 by a group of young people to bid for a government contract to deliver government services electronically to villages – handling land registration, dealing with taxes and so on. It is a sort of equivalent of the village shop or post office in a world where few people have personal computers.

Drishtee identifies a local entrepreneur and provides him or her with a ‘kiosk’ – a simple stall with a computer – which allows villagers to transact business with the government. There are now 1,000 kiosks, the business is making a profit and Drishtee has plans for 10,000 kiosks in 2008.

They have gradually been taking on new roles and providing new services – selling village handicrafts to the cities, offering distance learning lessons in English – and are now experimenting with offering health consultations through a form of telemedicine.

In a development backed by Microsoft, the first few kiosks are offering a consultation for just over $1. The patient has their temperature, blood pressure, ECG and pulse checked mechanically in the kiosk – with the owner assisting with language and technique as necessary – and is then put directly through to a clinician. Drishtee claim that the cost is much less than it would be for individuals to travel elsewhere.

This programme is only just starting – mistakes will no doubt be made – but lessons will be learned that will be valuable elsewhere.

“The electronic village shop – a possible future”, page 150 from Lord Crisp, Global health partnerships: the UK contribution to health in developing countries (The Crisp Report), Department of Health, London, 13 February 2007.

The future is coming, and good things are happening, but maybe we occasionally need to give it a little help in the right directions.

  1. Talks mentioning the electronic village shop: Understanding the e-Market and Designing Products to Fit, London, Jan. 2000, Cyber-economies and the Real World, Pretoria, Sept. 2001. and Toys for the Boys or Jobs for the Girls, Cheltenham, Nov. 2001[back]
  2. See H. Khalid and A. Dix (2006). From selective indulgence to engagement: exploratory studies on photolurking.[back]

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