Judges get an eye-opener in Ennis

The extent to which information technology was already in widespread use in the contestant towns greatly impressed the judging panel for the Information Age Town competition. The three external judges spoke about their personal memories of the process to Leslie Faughnan.
Irish Times, Thursday Oct 16 1997

"I think what really impressed me the most was how much people were already doing for themselves. They were not waiting for Telecom Eireann, the Government, or a grant - they were getting together to do things rather than waiting for things to be done for them."

So says professor Séan Scanlan of the Department of Electronic Engineering at UCD who was a member of the assessment panel for the Information Age Town competition.

"It was," he continues, "the positive attitude of people that was an eye opener. There were schools in Ennis and Killarney, in particular, which had integrated computers into their work programmes in a terrific way. Parents’ groups and local companies had helped out and no one was waiting for the Department of Education.

"In all four of the shortlisted towns there were impressive examples of very clever work being done for and by groups of disabled people. Everybody seemed well up with the technology, from Web sites with relevant information to projects to promote self-help, security and safety. People were clued in to opportunities nationally and yet the whole thing was the epitome of community care - real and genuine involvement and everyone getting on with it and not waiting for officialdom."

As an academic, Séan Scanlan was delighted to find that all of the entries had placed education and training for the Information Age high on their priorities. "Most had already set up well tailored courses for particular types of people - professionals, such as doctors or solicitors, as well as people preparing to use IT in their employment or business."

Professor Scanlan says he and his fellow judges were "staggered" at the standards of the final presentations by all four towns. The business proposal-type of presentation in a hotel to two council chamber semi-public events and the "Ennis show" which was live on local radio.

"I have no doubt that the Information Age town will work and work well. I am equally sure that it will work, not because of the "experts", but because of the extraordinary "ordinary" people who will forge the links to make it more than a technology tool set."

THE huge enthusiasm of people everywhere also impressed Dan Flinter, chief executive of Forbairt. "In Ennis the presentation itself was a major event to which there task force had clearly given a great deal of thought. It engaged a whole range of people and was broadcast live on Clare FM to involve the whole community. Certainly, as a process of presenting information, it was an interesting and unique approach.

"There was one company in Ennis we talked to which resonated with the possibility of the Information Age," says Dan Flinter. "They are involved in electronic engineering design with international clients. Their business model has changed as they recruited talent where they could it and changed the company to incorporate "virtual businesses" by engaging for example, women electronic engineers with design capabilities who are teleworking from their homes, or working flexible hours.

"This is a real and pragmatic example of adaptation and change. The design technology enables people with the skills to work and collaborate wherever they a computer, the work patterns adept to fit the tasks, the resources and the people responsible for them and the business model has changed to encompass constant flexibility."

In contrast to high tech business, Dan Flinter says another vignette that sticks in his mind was the presentation by the county librarian. "It was really interesting to see how they are using the technology to deliver newer and better services in the library system. Staff are being re-trained and re-positioned, as many routine administrative tasks are, and the brains and skills of the people on the team are better deployed. There is an interesting mini-publishing initiative, for example, based around local history.

"Here is a public service actively re-inventing itself and finding new ways of adding value to its work in the community in the digital age. That has a huge social and community value, and I know it is echoed around the State."

"One thing the whole process certainly demonstrated to me was the vast potential of voluntary effort in Irish communities when hundreds of people are mobilised with common goals," says Dr Danny O’Hare, president of Dublin City University. "I knew that the voluntary sector was strong, but seeing it so powerfully in action was exciting. In every community there were, I would guess, 40 to 50 people who were just dedicated. Their commitment and energy were infectious."

THE importance of spreading the involvement across the community and through all social classes was extremely important, believes Dr O’Hare. "There are few ventures I could think of which are so inclusive, and I think it is hugely important so that the value of information technology reaches to everyone, perhaps especially the less well off in our society. There is always the danger that technology and the skills that go with it could become another factor in differentiating the disadvantaged.

"So I was personally touched by the way in which so many of the towns had already focused on the disabled, for example, and ways in which today’s technology could be harnessed to assist in developing skills and in enabling a higher degree of independence. All over the State, it is clear people are interfacing with digital technology without fear or reserve to improve the quality of life - for other people as well as for themselves."

Everyone agrees on the importance of the new technology for children, believes Dr O’Hare, and there were examples everywhere of parents and teachers getting together to make it happen. "I remember a primary school in Castlebar which was full of enthusiasm and had succeeded in equipping itself with a set of PC’s from voluntary efforts. When objected to the setting aside of one classroom as a dedicated computer room, they simply went ahead, raised more money and converted a cloakroom into a new classroom."