Experts differ over Information Age progress

Lack of awareness among locals on objectives

The Examiner, Thursday, September 24th, 1998

EXACTLY one year ago, the champagne flowed at Dublin’s Point Theatre as Ennis celebrated winning Telecom Èireann’s Information Age Town Project, beating off competition from 50 other towns to win the £15m prize.

Hundreds of members of the Ennis public turned out for an open-air celebration to welcome the triumphant task force on their return home in anticipation of the technology bonanza and on year one they have not been disappointed as the infrastructure is now place rocketing Ennis into the next Millennium.

Since June, over 3,072 Ennis house-holds have already taken delivery of their Dell multi-media PCs at a cost of £260 to each home; a digital fibre optic ring has been installed around Ennis facilitating ‘split second’ transmission of a range of data and also since last March the town’s schools have benefited where 470 multimedia PCs have been installed in specially adapted computer laboratories.

Chief Executive of the Information Age Town Task Force, Michael Byrne yesterday expressed satisfaction on progress to date. He said: ”A lot of the groundwork has been completed and now it is our objective to use the technology to shape our own ends. It is a local operation and we will be doing it in a local way.”

However, Information Technology Expert and member of the Task Force IT sub-committee, Donal Crotty yesterday expressed concern that there was a lack of awareness among the local population as to what were the objectives or the purpose of the project.

He said: “For the implementation of the technology, you would give the project eight or nine out of ten. However, during the 12 months, the project has failed badly through a lack of information and communication from the project. It should have given weekly updates in The Clare Champion, but that didn’t happen, stemming form a lack of appreciation of the importance of communicating with the public.”

Reacting to Mr Crotty’s comments, Michael Byrne said yesterday: ”I would like to think we have learned our lessons as any organisation and we are increasing our presence in the local media. The distribution of a newsletter to Ennis households this week, giving an update, will also ensure that the public are informed of the up-to-date situation.” Mr Byrne added that a Communication sub-committee has been formed to deal with the issue.

Mr Crotty is critical of the familiarisation programme, undertaken by 1,825 people not familiar with a PC, stating that what was initially billed as a training programme had been downgraded, “providing very little benefit to those participating.”

Denying that the familiarisation programme was a downgrading, Michael Byrne said there had been a very positive feedback, both from the trainees and tutors in the programme where almost 2,000 people underwent the familiarisation programme in two months.

The absence of an active web site also brought criticism. Donal Crotty said: “The web site is to be formally launched at the end of September and it is a disgrace that it has taken that long. A web site should act as a window for the information age for outsiders and that has not been utilised.”

However, Michael Byrne said a web site could have been launched within a short period of winning the prize: “However, the task force was mandated to concentrate on the ground-work first. It should be noted that only 500 Ennis people had internet access in July, whereas now it is 4,500, making it a good time to launch the site. At the moment, we are concentrating our focus on the local people being directly affected by the project.”

While the provision of multi-media PCs to the town’s schools promises to revolutionise education in Ennis, it has emerged that the programme has left a number of schools in severe debt accommodating the PC’s.

Three schools have been forced to spend an estimated £60,000 in total from their own budgets to relocate students in newly built prefabs to enable the conversion of existing classrooms to computer laboratories.

An exasperated Gary Stack, school principal of the Ennis Boys National School said yesterday: “The cost of accommodating the PCs is equivalent to roughly two-thirds of the school’s total annual capitation grant of £30,000 through the construction of a prefab and converting an existing classroom. The school is in debt as a result. The Department of Education’s input has been nil; we have been left on our own to provide the infrastructure.”

Commenting on the Information Age Town Experience for Ennis schools, School principal of Scoil Chriost Rí, Pat Hanrahan said: “In many ways, it has been traumatic for the schools; classes have been moved, the costs incurred have been large and there has been additional work for staff who have been very flexible and innovative with no particular reward.”

However, like other principals, Mr Hanrahan said there is great enthusiasm among teaching staff and among students to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the PCs. He said: “There is now a strong connection for students between the home and school through the home PCs and the school PCs, where students are using the computers as a learning resource. The teachers are very anxious that the children will benefit.”

A Department of Education spokesman said yesterday the building implications of the allocation of the PCs to Ennis schools are being assessed in the context of the IT2000 Programme by the Educational Research Centre and the National Centre for Technology. The spokesman could not specify a date on which a decision will be made. As well as providing PCs for schools, the Task Force has allocated 60 PCs to seven training centres to cater with people for special needs underlining the project’s specific focus on social inclusion and working to incorporate all the requirements of a diverse society.

Greg Duff, spokesperson for one of the centres concerned, Clare Unemployment Resource Centre said yesterday: “The PCs have been a God-send to the centre allowing us to open at night-time for the first time. We have now ten classes of ten people and in terms of self-esteem, it has been great for the people involved. However, the question remains, will they access quality jobs as a result.

“Expressing delight at the provision of PCs to the centres, Donal Crotty said the acid test for the project is how it will change the lives of people. He said: “To date, it hasn’t done that in any real way. Maybe, I’m impatient, but I desperately want it to succeed. It needs to have a community element. The launch of an Intranet, where you will be able to contact local sports group and community organisations is vital for the future of the project. I believe that it cannot be successful without the aid of outside assistance.”

Michael Byrne, driving the project since his appointment last May, said the heart of the project will now be contained within 10 recently formed sub-committees which will develop strategies in relation to education, health and social care, government and public services and social inclusion.

Mr Byrne said: “The demand side of the project where the consumers have been equipped with the technology is almost successfully completed and now the test is how the supply side interacts with the public through public organisations, community bodies and other bodies.”

Acknowledging that the formal launch of the Intranet is 12 months away, Mr Byrne said changes have already been seen in how people conduct their lives, and this will become more apparent in future months as simple everyday interactions like ordering a pizza or enquiring on a planning application will be completed on line.

He said: “A very good start has been made and it is a credit to the Ennis public how they have interacted so generously. A lot of work needs to be done and I am confident we will achieve our worthwhile objectives.”

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