Smart Solutions

Happy Rural App

A free smartphone app which provides locals and visitors to rural areas with information on local public services, commercial activities and recreation.

Implemented inHageland region

Country : Belgium – Flanders

What’s the solution?

The smartphone app uses geolocation to show information on available local services and facilities according to the location where it is consulted. It gives the inhabitant or visitor detailed information about everything that can be used and experienced in the area, including public services and resources, including shops, restaurants, leisure facilities and playgrounds.

The app can be designed to cover all the municipalities of a rural region or focus in on one particular area, but it provides a more attractive offer to users if it covers a wider range – making it more likely to be used.

The overall aim of the app is to facilitate municipal services, improve the digital visibility of local entrepreneurs, and raise the profile of tourism, providing a digital communication  channel for residents and visitors.

The app can be based on an existing online platform (website) that regroups the available services and businesses in a set area.

The app can also be used to collect data to inform market understanding and even to inform policy decisions.

What makes it smart?

  • The app supports the small towns and rural municipalities of the Hageland region, so as not to be left behind by the increasing digitisation of the modern world and to take advantage of the evolution of the digital public space.
  • It is smart in not seeking to set nearby businesses or services simply in competition with each other (or indeed neighbouring municipalities). Rather, it understands that collective promotion through the app can raise the potential and market size of the entire region – being the most efficient way to raise the visibility and market reach of all participating businesses and services.
  • It combines social and digital innovation to revitalise a region, boost its tourism and economy, and improve the quality of life of its residents.
  • It shows social innovation by bringing together a diverse group of partners with varying interests and needs around the creation of an online solution. The creation and set-up of the app requires the mobilisation and active participation of the various groups of partners in the development and implementation processes.
  • It takes a people-centred approach, prioritising users’ informational needs, municipalities’ service provision capacities and local businesses’ activities and products, placing them at the heart of the smartphone application.
  • The solution also recognises that digitilasation has evolved from a simple digital presence, to intelligent internet applications that increase the efficiency and comfort of the service provision. The information provided and collected by the app can also form a basis to support policy choices, which are necessary and useful for the further development and dynamisation of a rural region like the Hageland.

How is the solution implemented?

  • Set up a group (or groups) with all project beneficiaries to get everyone’s perspective right from the start (municipalities, businesses, services, farmers, community organisations etc.) Their collective insights will be valuable when conceiving an online solution that is ultimately targeted to serve their needs.
  • When developing a smartphone app, make sure to encourage all involved parties to adapt their websites to mobile-friendly and responsive versions as early as possible. If your specifications require it, get all your partners to register to one common online platform.
  • Choose your service supplier wisely, according to your price and technical specifications, but also following the recommendations of your main project beneficiaries.
  • Extensively test the developed tool, together with the developers, to see whether it corresponds to your beneficiaries’ expectations.
  • Develop a marketing plan before launching your app, including elements such as dissemination, price, scope of distribution, and promotion and publicity.
  • Provide digital and/or marketing training for your main project beneficiaries if necessary, this will allow them to fully benefit from the app and further develop their competences in new areas.

In what local context has it been applied?

Hageland is a Belgian region located in the eastern part of the province of Brabant in Flanders and also a small part of the province of Limburg. The Hageland is a rural area comprised of 20 municipalities and surrounded by a number of important urban areas including Aarschot, Leuven, Tienen and Diest.

It is a popular rural tourist destination in Belgium, often compared locally to the countryside of the Tuscany region in Italy. It is known for its walking and cycling trails (a paradise for hikers with up to 1200km of walking trails through woods and rolling hills). The name ‘Hageland’ originally referred to land with dense (low) forest and undergrowth.

The region is also characterised by fruit orchards, local breweries and even vineyards. The villages and towns of the region each have their own local culinary specialties and strong architectural heritage, including old churches and ‘beguinages’ (complexes of small houses built in the middle ages for lay religious women to live in a community). Modern-day folk festivals and processions celebrate many local traditions, along with several museums.

Many residents find themselves increasingly living in one municipality, working in another, shopping in another, and doing sports and recreation activities in yet another. The broad geographic spread of the different services and facilities available across the region makes it difficult for everyone to be fully aware of what is available in nearby municipalities.

The region already benefitted from a shared online platform ‘Hageland online’ that combined local news (news centre), and information about local entrepreneurs (shopping centre). The platform was also connected with a local newspaper and the local edition of national newspapers. The online platform organises awards for the best local online retailers and training on online retail and marketing through the ‘Hageland online Academy’.

Who was behind the implementation?

  • Hageland+ LEADER Local Action Group led the project, including partner consultation, budget, administration, app development and launch. The project co-promoters were:
  • UCLL (University College Limburg Leuven) - a University of Applied Sciences, through its specialists in IT & Marketing) which provided advice and guidance on the technical and content development of the project;
  • Unizo Hageland a charitable organisation doing advocacy, training and networking for and by Hageland entrepreneurs – and co-promotor of the ‘Hageland online’ website; and
  • 20 municipalities in Hageland.
  • Other partners of the project included local tourism associations, a Flemish e-governance organisation in Brabant (VERA) a farmers’ union, Steunpunt hoeveproducten (a support centre for farm products) and Streffe Streek – a non-profit organisation for the promotion of local products of the Flemish Brabant.

What was the local journey?

  • Hageland+ LEADER Local Action Group launched the project by bringing together key partners with the idea of building a mobile phone application (app) to make the content of the Hageland online platform even more accessible and easy to use for users on the go. This aimed to further support the digital accessibility of local businesses and municipal services. Co-promoters included municipalities, business organisations and a technical university. Funding was obtained from the Plattelandplus fund, which offers up to 65% co-finance from funds provided by the regional government of Flanders and the provinces.
  • Once roles and planned actions had been agreed, in the first phase of the project, the University College Limburg Leuven (UCLL) set up and supervised a number of ‘sounding boards’ bringing together the different target groups and types of partners (entrepreneurs, municipalities etc.) for a detailed consultation on their needs and expectations. This process of participatory design aimed to best identify what businesses, customers, local inhabitants and visitors would need and want from the app.
  • A second strand of the project was to start working already on the mobile responsiveness of relevant websites in the region, particularly those of the municipalities, business organisations , tourism bodies, Hageland online and Streffe Streek. Websites that were not mobile friendly received advice from UCLL on how to become so – whilst websites that were already mobile friendly were encouraged to check what kind of information is consulted on the mobile version of the site to enable further website improvements from this perspective.
  • The next phase of the project was to increase the registrations of willing businesses on the Hageland online platform with the aim of making as many local businesses as possible visible on the future app. Project co-promoters Unizo Hageland and UCLL, together with the 20 Hageland municipalities, the Farmers' Union, Straffe streek and Steunpunt hoeveproducten registered willing businesses on the platform free of charge. This included taking stock of how many are already registered, classifying them per category and municipality, and determining their objectives and actions. These activities were supported through internship (work experience) opportunities.
  • All these related preparatory actions fed into the actual development of the app itself, built around making the content of the Hageland online platform available through a tailored online tool. Detailed specifications for the app were developed by UCLL together with the Flemish e-governance organisation in Brabant (VERA) taking into account the insights obtained from the participatory design exercise. The available budget was defined through market research whereby a number of suppliers were asked to estimate a budget for the outlined concept.
  • On this basis, the development of the app was put out for tender according to the relevant laws for the award of public contracts. Selection of the contractor was based on an assessment of several aspects including: price, implementation speed, platform stability, accuracy of geolocation, user-friendliness for the user and administrator, accessibility of the platform, readability and speed, the possibility of data capture and additional optional services as well as other technical specifications and the approach to consultation and cooperation with the client.
  • The app has the following technical design features:

    • The app is designed to display the information contained on the mobile responsive website of Hageland online in function of geolocation. The mobile responsiveness also adapts to the user profile (resident or visitor to the region). If users prefer not to disclose their location (or before they travel) they can still search the app by municipality;
    • easily downloadable via a QR code (redirecting users according to the their device and preferences to either the App Store, Google Play Store or Microsoft Windows Store);
    • adapted to ensure that it installs and works correctly on each of the three main smartphone platforms (iOS, Android, Windowsphone). This was easy to achieve since fundamentally, the app does not do anything technically more complicated than redirecting to the underlying ‘mobile responsive’ website. This solution was agreed in consultation with UCLL to ensure both ease of use and limited complexity for maintenance and adaptation.

  • The app has a simple interface presenting content under different icons, including: news; agenda; tourism; food & drink (cafes, restaurants…); short chain (linking to or embedding the online platforms of the partner organisations supporting farmers in the region to sell directly to customers); businesses. Via a settings button, users can change their user profile and favourites as well as their messaging preferences.
  • Once developed by the successful bidder, the project promoter and co-promoters tested and evaluated the pilot version of the app, particularly the proper functioning of the geolocation function throughout the region.
  • For the launch of the app, project promoters developed a marketing plan focused on the 4 Ps of Marketing: product, price, place and promotion. The plan focused on highlighting the functions and services of the app across the 20 municipalities of the region, as well as its adaptability to all mobile devices and the fact it is free to download and use. Promotion and publicity occurred mainly via the websites, social media accounts, networking magazines and so on of the many partners in the project – thus accessing entrepreneurs, residents and visitors. Promotional materials were produced to display in B&Bs and other tourist places. A more intense publicity was given in the first four months following the launch; then, a lower intensity was maintained aiming to remind and to catch the attention of visitors who were not yet aware of the app.
  • The development of the app was accompanied by the provision of training sessions by UCLL to municipalities and tourism actors of the region aimed at supporting the ongoing development of digital skills and services in the region. The topics emerged from the sounding board groups and included: digital strategy and starting with e-business; free and paid online marketing; online payment, shipping and invoicing; measuring and improving; and importing and exporting digitally.
  • From 2021, two new functionalities have been available in the Happy Hageland app: audio tours and the possibility to participate in competitions of local traders.

What have been the main outputs & results?

  • The app has been running for four years.
  • It has hundreds of registered businesses.
  • It had close to 10 000 users as of 2 December 2021.
  • It connects all 20 municipalities in the Hageland region.

What does it bring the village/community?

The project unlocks local assets and information for tourists and residents by bringing about cooperation on a supra-local level through state-of-the-art digital, mobile tools. It contributes to local development through the following processes:

  • The use of digital tools helps local entrepreneurs increase their sales market and their quality of life in the countryside.
  • Participating municipalities become aware of the digital possibilities of profiling and promoting themselves (social media, mobile, geolocation-driven apps) to their own inhabitants and visitors.
  • The development and maintenance of a shared digital identity raises the profile of a municipality in relation to other regions.
  • Digital media is used to promote local producers and traders and to stimulate better exchange and cooperation on a supra-local level.
  • A more accessible digital public offering in the countryside provided through better coordination across municipal boundaries and a mapping of digital deficits.
  • A new online public space, partly back in the hands of the local authorities, where municipalities can take on both a directing role and, to some extent, a participating role to bring about innovation or even stimulate new private initiative.
  • An opportunity to provide a local response to increasing competition from national and international e-commerce, regional entrepreneurs have more than a digital tool with geolocation and mobile internet to get identified and located, but also a wide range of partners to cooperate with.

What’s needed

Financial resources

Main types of cost:
Financial needs:

Total project cost: EUR 230 493, including:

Salaries: EUR 64 036

Operational expenses: EUR 108 852

Overhead costs: EUR 9 605

External services: EUR 48 000

Ongoing costs: EUR 3 700, covering servers rent and maintenance contract

Funding received:
Plattelandplus (fund offering co-finance from the regional and provincial governments)170,000 €All project costs
LEADER11,700 €Annual costs for servers and other app developments
Co-promotors48,793 €All project costs

Human resources

• Coordinators – ideally experienced in participatory approaches (such as a LEADER group)

• First year: project team of four-five people who meet every two weeks.

• Following implementation: one permanent employee for marketing and technical helpdesk tasks.

• Each municipality needs a trained employee who can update information themselves.

Physical resources

• Servers

What to do…

  • Communication, communication, communication
  • Manage a good team
  • Pilot test

and not to do

  • Start without support
  • Rush

Funded by