An international state of affairs

I am excited to present the first of our guest bloggers since I took over the blog. Fleur is based on Orkney and PhD looks at connectivity in rural life. COVID-19 lockdowns meant Fleur’s research and personal life became further entangled, as she discusses below.

To undertake my PhD research, I moved halfway around the world, from Melbourne (Australia) to Orkney (Scotland). During the first two and a half years of my studies, I lived up to my status as an international student. I presented at international conferences, from Canada to the Canary Islands. No two days were the same. I could be found either working from my desk in my department or undertaking fieldwork across the Scottish and Irish islands.

Picture of Fleur being awarded a student scholarship and standing beside a poster.
Winning a student scholarship at the International Small Island Studies Association’s (ISISA) ‘The Changing Futures of Islands’ Conference in the Netherlands, 2018 (Author’s own photograph).

Then Covid-19 struck and lockdowns rolled across the UK. I thought I was in a good position to continue my studies working from home. Most of my fieldwork had been completed and I was going to have to start writing intensively sometime, right? Now I would have the time to do that. Great! However, life is never that simple.

Cup of coffee and plate of biscuits looking out at a view of grass and sea.
View from my desk at college (Author’s own photograph)

Mentally, Covid-19 plays a tough long game. Like many of my fellow PhD colleagues, suddenly, my research did not feel important anymore. My main concern was with my family in Australia. During the second wave, my hometown (Melbourne) came under some of the world’s toughest lockdown restrictions in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. Melbourne stopped receiving international flights and the state’s borders closed for the foreseeable future. For the first time, I was physically cut off from home.

At this point, I was not thinking about anything PhD related, though that is when my research became more important than ever. Over the previous two and a half years I had spent my time investigating digital connectivity, its governance and the role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in island communities. This period has reinforced awareness of the vital role that connectivity and ICT have in daily life as they have become an essential utility. Over the months, connectivity has allowed work to continue and provided a lifeline to keep in touch with loved ones wherever they might be.

View out of the back of a boat looking out over sea and an island.
Island hopping during fieldwork in Ireland (Author’s own photograph)

My research has explored island communities which receive excellent, good, and non-existent connectivity. I have witnessed first-hand how connectivity can revolutionise life, how relationships are formed with it, and that creative innovations are taking place in the areas where you would least suspect. The role of ICT in island communities is demonstrated in various forms from digital hubs to space centres.

Throughout the lockdown period, connectivity has provided some rural businesses with an avenue to remain open and access international markets. As the numbers of remote workers increase, individuals are based across the islands whilst still being in the office through email and video conferences, as has become the norm. Furthermore, islanders are making use of their digital connections as they become increasingly dependent on online news, television and radio stations for information. These are circulating island news and stories not only to their own communities but globally.

Laptop and coffee cup looking out over a garden.
Finding new places to work from home (Author’s own photograph)

According to one island based real estate agent, the accessibility of connectivity, and its speed, is a top question for home buyers. This is when the quest for universal coverage comes into play. There is a plethora of governance policies and initiatives which strive for universal access through various routes including trialling new connectivity, and community broadband projects. In Scotland, the Government’s ‘Reaching 100%’ programme is enabling islanders to gain broadband and mobile connectivity. Some islands have benefitted from 4G mobile coverage, which means they can finally do all the things others take for granted such as download a movie or video call family and friends. This has started islanders thinking about what being part of the digital age means, and how it can be utilised. A thought must be spared for the islanders who are still suffering from inconsistent or non-existent connectivity. As the world has firmly embraced digital, they still struggle to bridge the gap.

Regarding to my own PhD experience, one of the things I have enjoyed during this time has been the creation of events in virtual spaces including seminars and conferences which have created a sense of inclusion. A good demonstration of this was the biennial ISISA conference which was postponed from June 2020 to June 2021. To take the place of the conference, a global event was planned capitalising on connectivity to overcome distance and time differences. The first ISISA Global Island Studies Webinar was held in late June. Commencing with speakers from the Pacific and rolling around the world with continuous presentations from speakers in their homes, to end in the Pacific 31 hours later. I never had to leave my couch to watch academics from across the globe discuss their latest research.

Pancakes and ice cream with syrup.
Late night conference snack (Author’s own photograph)

The opportunity for islanders to overcome challenges through capitalising on connectivity and using ICT has occurred through the lockdowns. As the digital world gains increased importance, I cannot fail to be reminded of the relevance of my research and its importance to both academic and island communities. 

Biographical information

Fleur is in her third year of PhD research at the Institute for Northern Studies in Orkney, University of the Highlands and Islands. Her PhD research is supported by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014 to 2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programme. Fleur’s research explores the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in island communities: successes, failures and lessons for Scotland’s Island Councils. Previously, Fleur completed an MLitt Orkney and Shetland Studies at the Institute of Northern Studies, University of the Highlands and Islands. 

Twitter: @wheresfleur

Academia: uhi.academia.edu/FleurWard

Would you like to write a blog for us? Email Neil.Ackerman@glasgow.ac.uk

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