New £12m research hub to tackle digital challenges in rural areas

New £12m research hub to tackle digital challenges in rural areas

The University of Aberdeen has been awarded £12.4 million of funding over five years to investigate how advances in digital technologies can transform rural communities, society and business. Edited.

The funding from the Research Councils UK's (RCUK) Digital Economy Programme, led by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), is the largest single externally funded grant to be received by the University, and will create 60 new jobs and studentships.

The Rural Digital Economy Research Hub will conduct research and development into digital technologies to enhance how crucial services such as healthcare and transport are delivered in rural areas across the UK.

It will also investigate how new technologies can benefit rural economies and communities by promoting new forms of enterprise in areas such as tourism and nature conservation.

The Aberdeen Rural Digital Economy Research Hub is one of three such centres in the UK focusing on the development of digital technologies for the future.  It is the only centre to be based in Scotland 

Drawing together the University's research strengths in areas including computing science, transport, healthcare and sociology, experts from across these disciplines will work together to understand and assess digital technology requirements and  develop and evaluate solutions.

Researchers will work alongside key partners including global transport provider FirstGroup, the NHS, development and enterprise agencies across the UK, and rural business and community groups, to enable new digital technologies to be developed and then tested within real life scenarios.

The Rural Digital Economy Research Hub will also work to establish a network of academic partners at other institutions in the UK and overseas.

The Rural Digital Economy Research Hub will be based at the University's King's College Campus in Aberdeen and will have a total of 50 staff and 20 research students.

Research will be conducted around four main themes: accessibility and mobilities; healthcare; enterprise and culture, and natural resource conservation. Examples of research activity include: 

  • Exploring how digital technology can be used – through a 'virtual marketplace' - to connect travellers, vehicles and services to provide rural populations with access to flexible transport solutions which match their needs.  
  • Using digital technology to support rural healthcare teams in managing and sharing information within and between teams, patients and carers, to help improve delivery of healthcare in rural areas, with the aim of delivering the right information to the right person at the right time to allow informed decision making. 

This would include projects such as the use of small wireless monitoring kits, able to capture a patient's vital statistics, such as heart rate, breathing rate, temperature and body movement.  This information could be sent over a network to medical staff and emergency services.  Such devices have application in a range of scenarios, ranging  from management of elderly patients to mountain rescue. 

  • Use of new mobile technologies to provide personalised information about culture, heritage and environment to enhance tourism and the experience of visitors, and to create new business models. 
  •  Investigating how technology bringing together environmental sensors, climate models, satellite imagery and community observations, can be developed to create a flood monitoring system able to give better tailored warnings of flood risk to a range of rural stakeholders including environment agencies, local government, transport providers, communities and businesses.

Professor C Duncan Rice, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen said: "This is an extremely important research award for the University and for northern Scotland, and will create 60 new posts and studentships.

"It brings together experts from different disciplines to exploit rapidly-advancing digital technology and bring economic, health, and quality of life benefits to rural communities. This will not only harness economic potential but also change in very practical ways the lives of millions of people across the UK and beyond.  

"Our scholars are to be congratulated for their success in bringing this national initiative to Aberdeen. I look forward to seeing this project develop over the months and years to come."  

Professor John Farrington of the University of Aberdeen's School of Geosciences, who will be Director of the Rural Digital Economy Research Hub, said:  "Untapped economic potential in rural areas is of crucial significance, and has been estimated at £347 billion in England alone.1 Digital technology has a key role to play in realising this potential. The Rural Digital Economy Research Hub based at the University of Aberdeen will develop advances in technology which have the potential to transform how people in rural communities live and work in the future."

Dr Peter Edwards from the University of Aberdeen's School of Natural and Computing Sciences, who will be Technical Director of the Rural Digital Economy Research Hub, said: "Our activities will build on our existing research excellence at the University in areas such as intelligent systems, novel user-interfaces and satellite and wireless broadband.  The recent Digital Britain interim report2 highlighted the importance of content and services in making digital technologies central to people's lives.  We welcome this opportunity to put rural communities and other stakeholders at the very heart of our research agenda, and to develop new software and services with them in mind."