Trás-os-MONTES DIGITAL and CES – a case of social benchmarking

Leonel Morgado, Isabel Bastos, Jacinta Vilela, Jorge Machado, Márcia Santos, Luís Ramos

University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD)

Centro de Informática, Quinta de Prados, 5000-199 Vila Real, Portugal

leonelm@utad.pt

ABSTRACT

The Trás-os-Montes Digital project, covering the Portuguese Northeast (a region known as “Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro”) took a novel approach to the problem of the digital divide: to take the USA model of agricultural extension services and attempt to create a similar model for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). While agricultural extension services distribute knowledge (agricultural techniques) to technology users (farmers), this project must create both the awareness for the benefits of technology and render it available.

KEYWORDS

extension, ICT, digital divide, regional development, Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, Trás-os-Montes.

1.       INTRODUCTION

The USA Cooperative Extension Service (CES) was created in 1914 by the Smith-Lever Act (Rasmussen, 1989). Its aim is to generalize the use of modern agricultural methods and techniques, so as to increase production levels, as well as to promote overall evolution in rural societies.

Initially, the project yielded poor results, mainly due to lack of motivation on the part of the target population, whose social and cultural setting was highly unprivileged. To reverse this situation, effective means of dissemination were required. The chosen approach was to build upon the momentum of the Youth Clubs. These clubs aimed at creating a healthy community life and an improved sense of citizenship, encouraging young people to develop their critical judgment abilities and fostering personal growth. Primarily established in rural areas and with a membership possessing some measure of know-how and expertise, these clubs were an ideal setting for introducing the CES. Furthermore, the very concept at the basis of the creation of such clubs made them a model to be followed, also at the agricultural level.

Little by little, what became known as the 4-H service (Head-Health-Hands-Heart, seen as the fundaments of growth) emerged. Nowadays, the CES and 4-H are interlinked: they use similar methodologies and share similar overall goals.

Using these principles as a guideline, the Cooperative Extension Service in Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro was created in 1999, later renamed “Trás-os-Montes Digital/SCETAD”.

Trás-os-Montes is a region ridden with economical and social hardships. By making available the means for providing citizens with a better knowledge of the world, and working towards their increased use, we hope to contribute towards a more dynamic and active society.

Widespread use of the New Information and Communication Technologies (NICT) – particularly the Internet – are of paramount importance to reach the intended goals. The Trás-os-Montes Digital/SCETAD project aims at filling a gap that has, otherwise, been hard to overcome. Considering the intended outreach, work teams were created for the creation and development of projects.

Although inspired on the USA model, the Trás-os-Montes Digital/SCETAD project follows a slightly different approach, in order to adapt to the field features and goals – using NICT is obviously quite different from using agricultural techniques and knowledge.

A network of Internet-access points was created, called GAC (Gabinetes de Apoio ao Cidadão – Citizen Support Offices). These were set-up at selected sub-counties (“freguesias”) and each had a clerk or mediator (“intermediário”) in order to provide adequate support for the needs of the population. Only by being on the terrain, close to people’s everyday life is it possible to effectively meet people’s needs. However, this initiative was only made possible through the support of the municipalities (“Câmaras Municipais”), where County Extension Agents were located, working within a County Extension Office (GEA, Gabinete de Gestão Autárquica). Their mission is to monitor, support and develop the mediators’ activities and act as liaison between them and the Coordination Team at the University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro. All these elements, together, form the Operational Team.

The overall goal of SCETAD can be described as:

“To make the new information and communication technologies an instrument for the improvement of the quality of life, for social and economical development and for the modernization of the corporate fabric, particularly in what concerns rendering local public services and information generally available in the fields of education, health, agriculture, tourism and local government.”

2.       The trás-os-Montes digital/scetad extension Network

SCETAD was developed from a multi-institutional partnership promoted by the University of Trás‑os‑Montes e Alto Douro, bringing together a highly diversified set of local and regional bodies. Central to this partnership are County governments, as they render possible the geographical dispersion of resources, including the setting-up of the earlier-mentioned offices.

Initially, 10 county governments embraced the launch of the project, and two GAC were set-up in each county. Currently, the second phase of the project is underway, and this network of offices was extended and consolidated: 21 new counties embraced the project, adhering to the original goals. For this second phase, an additional 62 GACs were created. All of these have Internet-access by means of a 64 kbps ISDN line.

Therefore, 31 GEA/Agents and 82 GAC are currently in operation (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Citizens Support Offices and County Government Offices

3.       MOTIVATION FOR THE PROJECT

SCETAD was created under two major guidelines: Information Society in Portugal and UTAD’s mission to act as an element for the development of the Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro region.

The creation of the Portuguese Government taskforce Missão para a Sociedade de Informação (“Mission for the Information Society”) and the edition of the Green Book for the Information Society in Portugal (MSI, 1997) were decisive steps for the modernization of the Portuguese Society. A Cooperative Extension Service, being a people-oriented service, is in line with four of the measures set forth in the Green Book:

§         MEASURE 1.3 – To promote citizen-information programmes;

§         MEASURE 1.5 – To foster local administrations’ initiatives, that aim to democratize access to the Information Society;

§         MEASURE 2.1 – Drive towards an electronic public administration;

§         MEASURE 2.2 – A state administration open to the citizens and businesses;

The region of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, due to several distinct reasons, does not possess neither a developed agriculture nor a developed industry. The population, partly living abroad, is scattered and with low-quality accessibility. It is not easy for citizens to contact the public administration bodies.

Under a regional perspective, SCETAD was launched under the goals set forth at the time for the Portuguese society, Ministry of Science and Technology, under its “Digital Cities” programme:

“…to mobilize and render widespread in society the instruments, techniques, and methods of information-organization, information-communication, and action, used in advanced societies. The application of digital services in an integrated way can, if directed with the goal of improving the quality of living of all citizens, be decisive for the future of many cities. The use of the digital information and communication technologies to improve health care, diminish the administration bureaucracy, empower for the generation of qualified work and tele-work, simplify and render transparent the decision processes; the quality and diversity of the received or processed information; acceptance and recognition of processes for education and professional training; rendering widespread a safe electronic commerce; providing new recreation activities; supporting citizens with special needs, among many other viewpoints, are all elements of the “Digital City” model.

(Excerpt from the speech given by the Minister of Science and Technology, at February 10th, 1998, in Aveiro, Portugal.)

4.       The trás-os-Montes digital/scetad Operational team

Organization ChartFigure 2 - Operational Team -- organization chart

As mentioned earlier, the SCETAD Operational Team comprises Extension Agents and Extension Mediators (directly in touch with the population), and also team coordinators (Figure 2). These coordinators are responsible for organizing and maximizing the results of the work performed by the Extension Agents and the Mediators. Also, the coordinators cooperate with the remaining SCETAD teams (technical support, educational staff, management staff, and other sub-projects), acting as a communications channel between Agents, Mediators and all the project resources and know-how. In this way, any problems and the solutions thereof are quickly and expediently reported. Coordination tasks also include the development of a regular training plan for the team members (Agents and Mediators). Agents then act as trainers, responding to the Mediators’ difficulties and any staff changes that may occur.

Lastly, the coordinators also prepare and launch specific initiatives, deploying them through the agents, in order to establish a direct contact between these and the population, further contributing to the use of the services rendered available by the new technologies. Team coordination ensures that each agent is part of a team instead of being a disjointed speck in a geographical scattering of human resources and skills.

5.       network of county extension offices (GeA)/agents

Each County Extension Office (GEA), equipped with a multimedia computer, a colour printer and a scanner, is located at a County capital. Such facilities are not meant to cater to the public, but rather as technical and physical base for supporting County extension agents.

The main functions of Agents are:

·         Face-to-face contact with the county’s population, aiming to acquire insights on the needs of the citizens, in order to improve their living conditions;

·         Liaise between all municipal bodies (population, county government, sub-county governments, agricultural agencies, organizations, businesses, etc.) and the team at UTAD;

·         Whenever a service is requested at a GAC, the county Agent must track its progress, intervening in all cases of severe delay on the part of the organization involved. If such a request is directed to the County Government to which the Agent is directly linked, all efforts must be taken by the Agent to ensure efficient handling of the issue.

6.       network of citizens support offices (GAC)

This network aims at rendering available services and information requested from any of the organizations that embraced the project (County Governments, Regional Office of Agriculture, Regional Office of Health, etc.), in order to prevent needless travel beyond any sub-county.

These GACs have a multimedia computer with an Internet connection (ISDN), colour printer, scanner and NetPin™ terminal (for electronic bank payments). They are installed at the sub-county government offices, open 40 hours a week. A clerk (Mediator) ensures service support (for those who experience difficulty in using the equipment) and ensures adequate office operation.

The major functions of Mediators are:

·         Reception desk and instructions to users;

·         Submitting citizen’s requests for services;

·         Making the GAC more well-known and improving its usefulness;

·         Communicating to the Agent any information collected, that may contribute for better support of the citizens.

7.       Example of agent-developed activities

The face-to-face contact with the population of the 31 counties allowed the Agents to develop several activities, directly inspired by the population’s specific needs. Given the great diversity of such activities, we decided to present just a few, which hopefully show the thematic richness of this approach.

Seasonal Jobs’ Gallery

The scarce number of jobs available in the region, the limited offer of labour in some areas, particularly in seasonal, agricultural-related activities led to the creation of a jobs’ gallery. This activity, launched in one county, was later to spread to all 31 counties. All interested parties can approach a GAC or contact a county Agent and fill in a form. Initially, this jobs’ gallery was operated through the simple use of e-mail; after a trial period that verified its pertinence, a Web interface was developed to manage and operate it.

National Post services made available at the GAC

Many subcounties do not benefit from the presence of a National Post office. Therefore, the GAC’s Internet connection was used as a basis for establishing a cooperation protocol between SCETAD and the National Post (“CTT”), so that this agency’s services could be made available to the population, dispensing with the need to go the county capital post office.

Support to Colonial War veterans

Agents perceived that a large number of war veterans were only vaguely aware of the existence of Government diplomas entitling them to a pension plan. Pensions had to be applied for until end 2002, but the sizeable paperwork involved and the entailing trips to county and regional capitals rendered the process difficult. The Agents quickly gathered all relevant information and used the Ministry Of Defense Web site to obtain the necessary forms. Eventually, when such an option was made available, the Agents helped the veterans submit their applications by e-mail.

8.       Example of coordinator-developed activities

Improved use of e-services

The Trás-os-Montes Digital/SCETAD project rendered available forms for requesting Social Security documents. The Agents were instructed to identify all places, within their allocated county, where citizens might need to obtain such documents. The survey also announced at such places that people could see to matters at the subcounty council or at the GAC, without having to travel all the way to the County capital.

Periodic street surveys

This activity prompted Agents to favour direct contact with the citizens, in order to better identify needs.

9.       statistics on CITIZENS SUPPORT OFFICES

There has been a regular and sustained increase in the use of the services made available at the GAC offices in all 31 counties.

The 82 subcounties where Citizens Support Offices are located have a total, highly dispersed population of 78,746. It is well to mention that the subcounties of Moimenta and Lavandeira have, each, only 184 inhabitants and that the most highly populated one – Outeiro Seco – has a mere 3,436 inhabitants. Considering all 82 subcounties, 66% (54) have less than 1,000 inhabitants (figure 3).

Such demographical limitations severely condition the project’s success. We are pleased to note that level of use of offices is fairly acceptable and steadily increasing, as shown in the following (Figure 4). A sustained average of 140 users per month and per GAC has been reached.

Figure 3 - 66% of the sub-counties have less than 1,000 inhabitants

Figure 4 - Average monthly users per GAC, 2002

Between January 1st and November 30th, 2002, a total of 75,690 users were recorded (Figure 5). This number has increased, mostly because the GAC didn’t all open at the same time, but also due to a steady increase in the average use of each GAC, as seen previously. We therefore believe that 2003 will register a much more significant use.

Figure 5 - Overall GAC users per month, 2002

AsSeSSMENT FRAMEWORK

SCETAD evolution and implementation are managed by an internal Centre for Management and Tracking (Centro de Gestão e Acompanhamento); it is also this entity that can propose new action plans. It is composed by a general coordinator and its supporting staff.

The assessment proper of the project is performed at the national level by the Portuguese government body POSI (Programa Operacional Sociedade da Informação, Information Society Operational Programme), which approves, oversees execution and analyses results of all Information Society projects launched originally under the “Cidades Digitais” and later under the “Portugal Digital” programmes.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This project is supported by the POSI (http://www.posi.pcm.gov.pt/), under the Portugal Digital programme, and by European Union funds (FEDER).

REFERENCES

Rasmussen, Wayne David, 1989. Taking the University to the People: Seventy-Five Years of Cooperative Extension. ISBN: 155-75326-7-2, Iowa State Press, Ames, Iowa, USA.

MSI (Missão para a Sociedade da Informação), 1997. Livro Verde para a Sociedade da Informação em Portugal, ISBN 972-97349-0-9, Missão para a Sociedade da Informação / Min. da Ciência e da Tecnologia, Lisbon, Portugal.