(Virtual) Community Informatics and Foot and Mouth Disease: A Case Study Briony J Oates, School of Computing & Maths, University of Teesside, Middlesbrough, TS1 3BA, UK E-mail: B.J.Oates@tees.ac.uk Abstract This paper examines how Cumbria County Council, a local government institution in northern England, used its website to support its community during the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in the UK in 2001. That community comprised both a geographically based regional population, and a distributed virtual community of potential visitors to Cumbria. The paper examines how Cumbria’s website was used to support the community in obtaining information, engaging in deliberation and participating in decision-making during the FMD outbreak. It discusses which audiences were addressed, what information was provided or omitted, and how the site could have been better used to offer community support and as a tool of edemocracy. The case study therefore provides an example of (virtual) community informatics in action. 1. Introduction Community informatics examines how information and communication technologies (ICTs) can be developed and used to realise local interests, objectives and responsibilities (Gurstein, 2001). It recognises the transforming potential of ICTs together with the continuing importance of community as an intermediate level of social life between the personal (i.e. the individual and the family) and the impersonal (e.g. the institutional and the global) (Loader, Hague, & Eagle, 2000). ‘Community’ is often taken to mean ‘neighbourhood’ and much community informatics work has been focussed on using ICTs in neighbourhoods. However, ‘community’ can also be based at the city level, the regional, the national or the international. This paper is concerned with ‘community’ at the regional, national and international level. It examines how Cumbria County Council, a local government institution in northern England, used its website to support its community during the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in the UK in 2001. That community was primarily made up of those who lived in the geographical entity of Cumbria (just under half a million people spread across almost 7000 square kilometres), who were therefore eligible to vote for representatives on Cumbria County Council, who paid local taxes to Cumbria County Council and used the services it provided, i.e. a community at a regional level. However, the Cumbria County Council website also served a broader community than those who lived in Cumbria – it also provided information and support to those who wanted to visit Cumbria as tourists, whose activities were severely restricted by the measures taken to combat FMD. Hence the web site also had to meet the needs of a wider ‘virtual’ community. ‘Virtual’ communities are communities which have no geographical limits but exist on-line as “a group of people who may or may not meet one another face-to-face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of bulletin boards and networks” (Rheingold 1994). In the case of Cumbria, visitors to the website were from Cumbria, the rest of the UK and many countries across the globe. The Cumbria County Council website therefore provides an example of the use of ICTs to support both community and virtual community i.e. (virtual) community informatics. The use of ICTs in communities is closely tied to issues of equality, emancipation and democracy. It is suggested that ICTs can potentially contribute to the democratic process by enabling people to (Tsagarousianou, 1999): Obtain information. Engage in deliberation. Participate in decision-making. These potential contributions of ICTs as tools of democracy (e-democracy) can be seen as ordered and cumulative (Jankowski & van Selm, 2000): free access to information on a particular political issue is a pre-requisite for engaging in public debate, and such debate is desirable prior to political action, whether in an institutionalised form like voting or in a form outside conventional political structures like mass demonstrations. As this paper explains, the actions taken to deal with FMD were politically contentious and did not have general agreement. The paper therefore examines how Cumbria’s website was used to support the community in obtaining information, engaging in deliberation and participating in decision-making during the FMD outbreak. By examining Cumbria’s website this paper therefore provides an analysis of (virtual) community informatics in action. The analysis examines which audiences were addressed, what information was provided or omitted, and how the site could have been better used to offer community support and as a tool of e-democracy. By examining how the website was used, lessons can be learnt which are relevant both to other government institutions and also to other (virtual) communities. 2. Background In 2001 the UK suffered what is believed to be the worst ever outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD) in the world. The situation was complex and systemic, with many different people affected. Initially it was seen as an animal health problem. Animals with the disease, and all animals on both the affected farm and any neighbouring farms, were slaughtered and either buried or burnt and all the farm buildings thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. It is estimated that at least four million animals were slaughtered. This slaughter policy was disputed as the best means of eradicating FMD. Many argued instead for a vaccination policy. To help prevent the spread of the disease, farmers and their families stayed on their farms, avoiding contact with others and often even keeping their children off school. Everyone else was asked to keep away from the countryside and not to hold countryside events or open visitor attractions if there was any risk of contact with livestock. Local authorities (i.e. county councils such as Cumbria) were given powers to make blanket closures of all footpaths in their area, which were quickly implemented. Most visitor attractions in the countryside were closed, as were carparks and picnic-sites, to further discourage visitors. People duly stayed away from the countryside. However, these responses quickly had a significant impact on activities other than farming, especially countryside recreation and tourism (DEFRA, 2001; Devon, 2001; Haskins, 2001; Lowe, Edwards, & Ward, 2001). The Government advice changed, saying, “the countryside is open”, and only paths across farmland where animals had been infected need be closed. Walkers also argued that there were no known cases of ramblers carrying FMD and passing it on to animals, and their civil rights were being unjustifiably infringed. However, many local authorities were reluctant to re-open footpaths, wanting to be ultra-safe (DEFRA, 2001). Tourists, both foreign and domestic, were still put off visiting the countryside, by worries there would be nothing to do, by fears of catching FMD themselves (which was highly unlikely) and by media pictures of pyres of burning animals (DEFRA, 2001; Lowe et al., 2001). Many non-farming businesses were therefore also affected, particularly those in the tourism sector (e.g. pubs, hotels, stately homes and other visitor attractions) and those which depend on access to the countryside (e.g. fishing waters, riding stables, tackle shops and outdoor clothing manufacturers). The effect on farming and these businesses then had a knock-on effect on other businesses serving them, such as plumbers, painters and decorators, car and machinery suppliers, livestock hauliers, laundry services and food wholesalers (Countryside Agency, 2001; DEFRA, 2001). Latest estimates suggest the cost to the national economy was over £8 billion. Although farmers received compensation for their culled animals, businesses received no compensation for their loss of revenue. The impact on those living and working in the countryside was not just operational and financial but also psychological, as they saw animals culled and transported away, or buried or burnt, farmers and businesses suffering and their way-of-life significantly altered. For example, in March 2001 the Rural Stress Information Network took 2,700 calls, compared with 143 in March 2000 (Countryside Agency, 2001). County councils are the highest tier of local government in rural England (major towns and other parts of the UK have different systems). Their responsibilities include education, social services, highways, housing, leisure, environmental issues and generally promoting and developing their local economy. During the FMD outbreak their additional responsibilities included installing disinfectant mats on roads, issuing animal movement licenses and closing or re-opening footpaths. County councils therefore were the only bodies with accurate knowledge of the FMD and footpath situation in their area – the websites of government agencies and tourist information organisations could only provide links to the county council websites for up-to-date information on open and closed footpaths. County councils also had a duty to promote and develop the economic and social well-being of their communities, parts of which were suffering badly, as this section has explained. Cumbria was the worst affected county in the UK (893 farms with FMD out of the UK total of 2030). It is also heavily dependent on countryside tourism; many visitors come to the Lake District National Park, which lies within Cumbria’s boundaries. The next section discusses the website of Cumbria County Council during the FMD outbreak. 3. Analysis of Cumbria’s website This section examines the content and use of Cumbria’s website at the height of the FMD outbreak, analysing the information provided to meet the needs of different members of the community, and the opportunities for engaging in communication and deliberation and participating in decision making. Provision of information As explained above, Cumbria had the highest number of infected farms in the UK. For farmers in the community, Cumbria’s website provided links to the DEFRA (UK Government’s Department for Environment and Rural Affairs) website pages on biosecurity and the animal movements license schemes. It also gave information on how farmers could place disinfectant maps on minor roads, including the size of mat needed and appropriate warning signs. However, no other information was provided for farmers. Walkers were severely affected by the footpath closures. Walkers in Cumbria comprised both people who lived in Cumbria and those who visited it – they were therefore a virtual community, seeking information from the website. Unlike many other counties, Cumbria did try to re-open its countryside to walkers, and the website provided detailed information about the footpath situation. Maps were provided showing the areas of fells where path closures had been lifted. There was also a database of open and closed paths throughout Cumbria, which could be queried by users via a clickable map and a form-based query. This query form allowed users to check details of paths using any combination of a range of attributes: owner, type, category, location, length, status, start point grid reference and end point grid reference. Further information on Cumbrian footpaths could be found via the discussion forum on footpaths (see below). However, for less athletic potential visitors, who might wish to find out what visitor attractions were open, the website just provided links to other agencies, such as Tourist Boards and the National Trust. Other county council websites, for example Northumberland, provided detailed information about visitor attractions and their open/closed status (Oates, 2002b). Cumbria’s website provided a lot of information for affected businesses in the community. Standard letters were available for downloading, with the names and addresses of appropriate recipients, so that people could customise them, to apply for deferment of local tax payment, to change the accounting year end for tax purposes, and to request deferment of income tax and National Insurance contributions. Two “Business Survival Toolkits” were provided, one specifically for tourism businesses and one for other types of business. These gave advice on, for example, the financial help available, cashflow management and costs control, alternative marketing strategies during the FMD outbreak, and the legal position if guests wished to cancel their holiday or if staff had to be laid off. A pro forma spreadsheet, with guidance notes, was provided for business owners to produce a cash flow forecast. Guidance was also provided on carrying out a risk assessment to judge whether a visitor attraction could be safely opened to visitors. This included a decision flow chart and a risk checklist for completion, and encouragement to discuss with others affected in the local community any plans to re-open. The website also gave information for other residents in the community. Schools were advised in which circumstances staff or children might need to be excused attendance. The website also provided a summary of sources of financial advice for residents affected by, for example, being laid off from a job, such as the Government’s Jobseekers’ Allowance and crisis loans via the Citizens Advice Bureau. Further advice was provided to members of the public in the vicinity of FMD confirmed cases. This explained the (low) health risks to humans, when to cancel community events, and suggestions of how to support farmers e.g. by a telephone call or arranging to do shopping for them. There was also health and safety information, offering fact sheets and risk assessments concerning working on FMD sites, cleansing and disinfecting, and working with pyre ash (from the burning of carcasses). Information was also provided from the Department of Health about measures to minimise risks to public health from the slaughter and disposal of animals. This was supplemented by information from the local department of public health, with weekly updated data showing its monitoring of the incidence of gastro-intestinal infections, which might increase because of the burial of animal carcasses. Cumbria therefore provided a significant amount of information for walkers, businesses and other members of the community. However, farmers and tourists other than walkers were not well informed by the website. Communication and deliberation Cumbria had three FMD discussion forums: ‘access issues’ (footpaths, sites and roads), ‘economic issues’, and ‘other issues’. As at 9 October 2001 the access forum had received 852 messages, the economic issues forum 48 and the other issues forum 35. The ‘access’ forum was therefore clearly the most well-used. The participants were a virtual community, comprising local community members, visitors to Cumbria, those considering visiting the area but worried about the FMD situation, and those who had recently visited the area and wanted to share their experiences. Messages posted included: Asking whether a planned route was feasible. Asking whether it was possible to avoid seeing pyres of burning animals. Discussing the need for path closures given the lack of evidence that walkers provided any risk. Alerting others to farmers’ homemade, illegal ‘path closed’ signs. Querying why particular paths were still closed. Suggesting areas where blanket closures could be lifted. Messages posted indicate that its users found the forum a useful way of obtaining upto-date, accurate information and sharing views. The forum was also used by members of Cumbria’s FMD Task Force, who could, for instance, inform participants about planned path openings before they were implemented. Officials from DEFRA, the Veterinary Service and other public authorities were also known to ‘lurk’ on the forum, so participants felt they could influence their future plans (see below). The other two forums were less well used. Messages included debating whether vaccination was appropriate and the difference in compensation for farmers and other businesses. Participation in decision making As noted above, officials from DEFRA, the Veterinary Service and other public authorities were known to ‘lurk’ on the ‘access issues’ forum, so participants felt they could influence their future plans, by suggesting where paths might now be safely reopened and alerting the officials to illegal path closures. This could be seen as indirect participation in decision making. Some of the correspondents to this forum did go further and start to make plans for a ‘mass trespass’ on footpaths that were still closed. Although the trespass did not occur, this indicates how a website’s forum can be used to gather support for, and plan, civil action which challenges the prevailing public policy. 4. Discussion Diversity of community members As the previous section explained, Cumbria provided a significant amount of information for walkers, businesses and other members of the community. This information provision could stand as an exemplar for other communities facing a similar crisis in the future, for example, further disease outbreaks (animal or human), or biological or nuclear terrorist attacks. However, farmers and tourists other than walkers were not well informed by the website. Farmers could have been provided with advice to cope with the isolation and stress (see the next section). Tourists could have been provided with information about activities other than walking. Tourists will visit areas where they are confident of being able to do what they want to do. It is likely that Cumbria lost tourist trade to other counties which provided more information for visitors, such as Northumberland (Oates, 2002b). Reports into the FMD outbreak have highlighted tourists’ need for upto-date information. For example: “The difficulty that visitors experienced in obtaining detailed, accurate information – and the reluctance of many people to travel without it – was a significant lesson from the epidemic. In the early stages many information sources – including helplines – were vague and unsatisfactory. This resulted partly from absence of up-to-date information in a fast-moving situation, but was also because systems were not geared up to provide it.” (DEFRA, 2001, p. 37) Lack of information provision can thus have an impact on a community’s businesses. In a complex, systemic situation such as the FMD outbreak, a range of different community members is clearly affected. It is important that website developers ensure that all affected members receive information tailored to their particular needs. In Cumbria’s case some members were provided with more information than others. Previous work (Oates, 2002a) has argued that current web development methodologies (e.g. December, 1997, 2001; IBM, 2001) adopt a positivist notion of ‘web audience’, reifying it as something “out there”, waiting to be identified and labelled, rather than recognising it as something constructed by web developers. Indeed, it is important for all community informatics work that we recognise that communities are diverse social constructs (Day, 2001), and that connotations of homogeneity and common interest may disguise differences and conflicts (Scott & Page, 2001). During the FMD outbreak the needs of walkers (access to the countryside) were in conflict with the needs of farmers (closing of the countryside). Analysis of Cumbria’s website suggests that the developers’ sympathies may have lain more with the walkers. Lack of psychological support One important aspect of the FMD outbreak was poorly covered: there was little concerning psychological support to cope with the loss of animals and businesses, the distressing scenes and the isolation experienced particularly by farmers and their families. Almost all the information was of a factual, often financial, nature (e.g. sources of financial aid). Cumbria did suggest people could contact farmers to offer support, but that was all. In the UK county councils are responsible for the provision of social support services to their community (rather than, for example, the National Health Service). It is disappointing that Cumbria’s social services department did not use the websites to help people cope, by providing advice on, for example, simple relaxation techniques, coping with insomnia or nightmares, and explaining slaughter and death to children. The discussion forums could have been used to provide a self-help virtual ‘place’ for community members to offer and receive support to cope with the stress, possibly anonymously (see, for example, Burrows, Nettleton, Pleace, Loader, & Muncer, 2000). Some contributors to the forums complained about their distressing situation, and others replied with a message of support, but nothing further. It seems social workers from the council were not reading the messages, If they were, they could have posted replies about sources for coping. They could also have posted messages encouraging social support through, for example, experience sharing and giving each other motivational support (Moursund, 1997). The council did not therefore use its website and forums well to support the emotional and mental well-being of its community members, and equally the community members chose not to use the forums in this way. Limited support for e-democracy The ‘access issues’ forum illustrates how ICTs can be used as a means of developing community by increasing citizen-citizen communication through email, discussion lists and chatrooms, creating a new virtual public space for discussion and debate and enabling actors to find or forge common interests (Rheingold, 1994; Tsagarousianou, Tambini, & Bryan, 1998). This forum illustrates communication and deliberation, and, to a lesser extent, participation in decision making. Community members are still contributing to this forum, over one year after the last reported outbreak of FMD in the UK, and when all the footpaths in Cumbria have long since been re-opened. However, Cumbria’s website could have been better used as a tool of e-democracy. For example, the FMD outbreak led to the recognition that UK tourism needs stronger and more coherent voices (DEFRA, 2001). The council and the community members could have used the website and forums to enhance and develop the ‘voice’ of the tourism businesses in the community, but did not do so. Nor did Cumbria use its website and ICTs to inform and empower its community as active citizens in a national debate. The information provided followed the official Government line without offering alternative views. There was no explanation of, or links to, the debate about the culling policy and whether vaccination of animals was a better means of FMD control. Nor was there information or links to the debate on whether walkers did pose a risk to animals, and whether their civil rights had been unjustifiably infringed. Questions have also been raised about the legality of the culling policy, and there have been disturbing reports about some of the slaughter methods used – again, the website did not inform community members so that they could take part in these debates. 5. Conclusions This paper has discussed the nature and use of Cumbria’s web site during the UK 2001 FMD outbreak – a case study of (virtual) community informatics in action. The analysis examined which audiences were addressed, what information was provided or omitted, and how the site could have been better used to offer community support and as a tool of e-democracy. Cumbria’s website provided a significant amount of information for walkers, businesses and other residents in the community, but little information for farmers and for visitors who were not walkers. The lack of support for the emotional and mental well-being of the community members was also striking. This illustrates the need to consider carefully all members of a community and their needs, recognising that a website audience and a community are not homogenous and are a social construction. The website was originally constructed by Cumbria’s website developers, but its content was subsequently shaped by those who participated in the discussion forums. The ‘access issues’ forum was well-used and showed community members engaging in information provision, communication and deliberation, and limited decision making. However, the other forums were not well used, and an opportunity was therefore lost for other affected members, such as tourism businesses, to use ICTs to create a community and find a common voice. Nor did Cumbria use its website and ICT to inform and empower its community as active citizens in a national debate. It must be remembered that there were many other websites with information or discussion forums about FMD. However, some information, particularly up-to-date information on footpaths, was only available from the county councils. County councils also have a statutory duty to support the economic and social well-being of their communities, and cannot leave this to other websites or organisations. It must also be recognised that a council’s web sites was not its only means of providing information and support, other means included via the telephone, leaflets or face-toface. However, a website does offer a relatively cheap, quick and effective means of providing up-to-date information and support which can be accessed at a time of the reader’s choosing, rather than that of the information provider. By using Cumbria County Council’s website as a case study, this paper has shown how a website and its discussion forums can be used to support both community and virtual community i.e. (virtual) community informatics. References Burrows, R., Nettleton, S., Pleace, N., Loader, B., & Muncer, S. 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