(Virtual) Community Informatics and Foot and Mouth Disease: A

(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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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