The West's awake to the Information Age

Justin Comiskey looks at the high amount of work put in by Castlebar, which lost out to Ennis for the Information Age Town designation

Castlebar in Co. Mayo put in tremendous amount of work in their effort to become Ireland's first Information Age town. In fact, the steering committee over-looking its submission invested around 14,000 man hours - summer holidays were abandoned in some cases - to develop various ideas and projects that the town planned to include in its proposals for the competition

Long before the Telecom Éireann-sponsored Information Age Town competition was announced - in fact, as far back as when Alfie Kane, Telecom's chief executive, first mooted the idea of an Information Age town in a speech last October - a number of people in Castlebar had latched on to the idea and began researching into possibilities to see if it could become a reality for the town.

According to those who organised Castlebar's steering committee, enthusiasm for the idea of the Information Age and the possibilities offered by the competition to become an Information Age town grew very rapidly. Committees involving a wide range of individuals from the public on a number if ideas and projects.

Castlebar's steering committee quickly posted up quite a number of noteworthy accomplishments in its bid to secure the status of winners in the Information Age Town competition. These included Mayo County Council to put aside a 25-acre site that would be used as a digital park and incorporate a nursery facility for enterprises in the fields of business training services and webpage design/software. This facility would also include multimedia facilities. Towards developing a digital park, the steering committee managed to secure a substantial submit BES funding commitments to develop the first of several intended nursery units for the park.

Local businesses and Mayo people working in high-tech industries were also to lend a hand to Castlebar's push to win the competition. A local branch of the Irish Nationwide Building Society, for example, donated an outlet on Ellison Street in Castlebar that was subsequently developed into an Information Age town visitors centre. Thousands of people visited this facility where they could access information about the Information Age and see and use some of the tools of that approaching age.

In Castlebar, the local Community Development Association and Parish Council came up with another substantial sum towards the town's competition efforts. Considering that, in the past, the town and county had suffered more than most from the haemorrhage of emigration, much of the steering committee's efforts were guided by the need to set up the opportunities and businesses that might ensure that many people would not have to emigrate from the area again.

Among the advantages which the town's steering committee included in its submission to the competition jury were a number of interesting and pertinent points. The submissions noted, for example, that Castlebar is served by a modem communication network and that its telephone exchange is already fully digital with an ISDN capability. It also noted that awareness of the competition is "unparalleled" resulting from a high level of local involvement and "saturation coverage" from the local mass media.

Businesses in Castlebar, according to the submission, had expressed a willingness to get involved in "feedback" and pilot schemes" and some had even committed themselves to making additional financial commitments towards the success of the project.

The recently established Castlebar campus of Galway RTC was also seen by the submission's authors as representing a significant opportunity to develop further education and training in the computer, IT and electronics areas.

In addition, the submission made much of the town's familiarity with information technology whose use is "almost mainstream" in some local industries. A quarter of all homes in Castlebar have computers and more than one-third of the population have access to computers at school or at work, the submission stated.