A First Christmas for Ennis in the Information Age

by Michael Byrne, Chief Executive, Ennis Information Age Town

The Clare Champion, Friday, 11th December 1998

This Christmas in Ennis is unique. Although the town won the £15 million Telecom Eireann prize in September of last year, this is the first Christmas in which Ennis can be described as “wired”. This time last year Ennis schools had not received their multi-media PCs, no home had received a computer and no significant developments had taken place in implementing strategy to handle the prize. This year all that has changed and Ennis in a very real sense is spending its first Christmas in the Information Age. We are very proud of what we have achieved.

We readily admit that progress was slow at the beginning but we must realise the situation as it was at the time. The prize was won by Ennis Information Age Task Force, a small and mainly voluntary organisation, who put every ounce of energy they had into the massive task of scoring the winning goal. The next task was that this voluntary organisation should enter into a partnership with the giant semi state telecommunications company. Telecom Eireann have been criticised quite wrongly that they did not have a master plan for the winning town. If they imposed their ideas, they would have been accused of telling Ennis what to do with “our prize”. There is no doubt that the Ennis Task Force held strongly to the view that they should have a major say in the strategy.

The result was the creation of Ennis Information Age Town Ltd., a company with directors drawn from Telecom Eireann and the Task Force. The chairman is Des McLoughlin from Telecom and I was appointed chief executive with no background either in Telecom Eireann or the Task Force. This strategy is working well. Every week I address meetings, seminars or visiting groups in Ennis about the progress of the Information Age Town. I can quite honestly say that there is a huge fund of goodwill towards the project. Sure, there are questions people want to ask and sometimes they are not always happy with the answers. However, the emphasis is overwhelmingly positive and this appreciation of the work that is being done grows by the day.

So what have we to report this Christmas? The first and most obvious initiative was in education. Ennis has a young and vibrant population. 40% are not yet 24 years old. Ennis students can be considered as some of the most privileged in the world as a result of the Information Age Town Project. There are five secondary schools catering for 13 to 18 year olds and seven primary schools for 4 to 13 year olds. Through the Information Age Town Project, these schools have been provided with the most up to date technology. 470 Dell multimedia PCs were installed in state of the art PC laboratories in each school.

In addition, a PC was installed in each classroom. Each computer laboratory was also fitted with additional equipment including date projectors, scanners and printers. All schools have free Internet connection and free line rental for two years. The Information Age Project has also provided 5,200 individual e-mail addresses to all primary and secondary school students as well as their 300 teachers.

The Information Age Town Project is about learning to use technology as part of our everyday lives. For this reason, all residents living within the Ennis U.D.C. boundary could apply for a highly subsidised top of the range Pentium 2 multimedia computer for only £260. This package included a free Internet connection and one year free rental. Rental for years 2 and 3 is set at half price. To receive the PC, each household nominated one individual aged 16 years or older. The chosen person had to undergo a basic computer proficiency test or an eight hour free basic familiarisation programme if they had no prior knowledge of computers.

Over 4,200 PCs have now been delivered with a further 500 applications to be processed. This figure represents an 80% take up rate in Ennis households. 2,000 households opted to undergo the basic computer proficiency test which had a 90% success rate. A further 2,200 attended the familiarisation programme. This proved a huge success with nine local training agencies providing the courses. Class sizes were restricted and attendees ranged in age from 16 to 79 years.

The Information Age Town Project is now turning its attention to the specific needs of business people in the town. £2 million has been earmarked for this important sector. As each business has separate requirements and is at different stages in terms of technological development, it is necessary to assess their needs individually. The IAT office has been engaged recently in widespread consultation with the tourism, retail and professional sectors in the town. The response has been excellent and I look forward to a very fruitful relationship with Ennis business in the months ahead.

The Information Age Town is totally open to suggestions on ways the project can work with business and many submissions have already been received from local companies. There are many opportunities available for small and medium size enterprises in Ennis. The new Ennis Website is now operational. Retailers will be able to use this site as an advertising medium, to enhance customer relations or use the Internet to increase access to product information from suppliers. It will also enable them to adopt up to date business methods such as just in time stock control, electronic business banking and possible distance learning and training. As late as Monday last, we organised a special Internet seminar for business.

The Information Age Town project is designed to assist the greatest number of people possible and will try to stimulate the use of the electronic medium as a means of enhancing communication between all sections of the community. Clubs, organisations and community groups will now have a new way through the Internet of contacting their members and informing the public of their events. It is a specific objective of the project to work with marginalised groups to ensure they enjoy the advantages of the Information Age.

Seven training centres set up in Ennis to cater for people with special needs have been utilising Information Age Town technology since the project began. Early school leavers and unemployed people have the opportunity to improve their qualifications for entering the work force. Those with physical disabilities or learning difficulties are using the latest adaptive and assistive technologies.

Through the network of narrow Ennis streets, the Celtic Tiger is purring. A healthy growth in indigenous business is evident in the number of new retail outlets that cater for the developing market for craft and home produced goods. Both old and new industries are participating in the changes that are taking place. The latest innovation has been the introduction last month of VisaCash, the electronic purse trial operated by Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Bank and Telecom Eireann. Developments in software are making businesses more cost effective and efficient.

In terms of the Information Age, Ennis is the most privileged town in Ireland. This did not happen by accident. A group of dedicated people worked day and night to make it happen. The Great Prize was won and the town is now reaping the benefits. It is my hope that the people of Ennis will feel immensely proud of the achievement as this project develops. As people speak of the Clare senior hurling team with admiration and pride, I want some of that light to shine on the Information Age Town. The respect of the public must be earned. I believe we are making great strides in this respect.

This is a Christmas of real celebration for the Information Age Town. We wish you a Happy Information Age Christmas from the members of the Ennis Task Force, Telecom Eireann and the Ennis Information Age Town Office.

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