Four years ago, Ennis became 'wired' for the future. Gordon Deegan assesses the impact of the Information Age Town project.
As the town's 15,000 population availed of the IT investment, in a burst of hype typical of the height of the dotcom era, eircom described the project as "one in which people's economic and cultural life is dependent on information and communications technologies at work, at home and at play". It boasted that Ennis was the world's first "wired" town and would serve as a test-bed for new technologies and applications.
For a long time, one could draw only on anecdotal evidence, as few hard facts about the impact of the Information Age Town (IAT) project were available. This has now changed. One of the most striking results from a recent independent Ennis household survey of 563 individuals was that 52 per cent of people were not sure whether the project had met expectations. This has much to do with the initial overblown expectations. The editor of the Clare Champion newspaper, Gerry Collison, believes that while "the project held out the promise of limitless opportunity in the initial stages, current expectations are far more modest. "The local co-ordinators have been inventive and inclusive in their efforts to spread the benefits across the community but they could never fulfil the unrealistic expectations built up by the Information Age Town competition."
However, the local promoters of the project are satisfied with the results of the survey. Pointing out that for 31 per cent of the population the project has met expectations, Chief Executive of the IAT project, Michael Byrne, says they are very pleased with the figures, which show that levels of PC and Internet access in Ennis are more than twice the national average. An eircom spokeswoman agrees. "The people of Ennis have shown themselves to be highly innovative and creative in adapting the technology to suit their needs," she says.
The survey also found that the average number of online sessions per person per month is 40, which is more than twice the US average and more than four times the national average.
One of the concerns at the outset, expressed by the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, among others, was the "digital divide" that the project might create between the different socio-economic groups in the town. This is in part confirmed by the much higher take-up of the "free" PC scheme in the better-off areas of Ennis.
Brian McCormack, Project Manager with Ennis West Partners, a local development group promoting social inclusion, says the IAT project "has been very community-focused". However, he says: "the impact on the adult population has been slow and it has found it hard to reach the long-term unemployed. It takes time, there are no quick-fix solutions."
One of the other major challenges facing the project was how to bring on board the older members of the town's population. The lowest rates of PC ownership are in those areas where many of the town's elderly people live. Bishop Walsh says: "As far as computers are concerned, I would be something of a slow learner. The project's impact will be on the young and, quite rightly, that is where the emphasis has been, but I think it is unrealistic to expect that the project would have a major impact on the older generation." However, there have been exceptions, including the establishment of the Sunset group, a group of retired people who have come together to publish a monthly magazine.
One of the survey's more striking findings is that the project has made no impact in building up e-commerce in the town, despite initial forecasts of Ennis doing its shopping online. The figures show that only 11 per cent of people shop online which is comparable to the overall national figure. Gearóid Mannion of Tom Mannion Travel, which won the overall IAT Best Practice award last year for its embracing of the project, says bookings online are "slow and steady" at around 5 per cent. Mannion says there is a lack of initiative from the IAT to encourage more online activity.
Perhaps acknowledging this, the IAT has recently distributed to each household a CD-Rom entitled "Make More of It", with a number of applications, which Mannion describes as "long overdue". However, Peter Robbins, of local company Tierney's Office Automation, points out that to cite the lack of online shopping as significant for the project is unfair as e-commerce has been shown to be completely overrated worldwide. He says that the influence of the project "is almost beyond measure". One obvious example is Custy's traditional music store, which is to create a Japanese version of its website in response to the online business it has generated in the Far East.
The impact of the IAT project on the town's schools is cited as one of its most successful elements. Gerry Collison, however, is not so sure. "While there have been some notable successes, the overall impression is that Ennis is not that far ahead of the rest of the country in bringing IT to the classroom. Teachers who have become involved have done so on a voluntary basis and much of the technology installed four years ago is now widely available in other towns across the country."
Green Party member Dónal O'Bearra is more upbeat. "The results of having a generation where computers are educational aids and tools may not bear fruit for a further five years, but this latent potential will serve Ennis well in years to come." This view is shared by school principal Gary Stack, who says the project has had a significant impact on pupils at Ennis National School. "One aspect of the project which has been stymied, however, is the population's interaction with the public sector, particularly local government.
"Four years on, Ennis UDC has no functioning website, while Clare County Council's site has only become live in the last number of weeks." Over the past 12 months, both local authorities have been developing an IT project, EOLAS, but it has yet to go live. A notable exception to the unimpressive contribution from the public sector is the local public library where free Internet access is available on a large number of terminals. Equipped also with a very impressive website, Internet access from the library is extremely popular, though, ironically, the free service has resulted in the closure of the town's only Internet Café.
Despite early promises, the jobs dividend from the project has not materialised and the number of jobs created in IT is comparable to other towns of similar size. In an attempt to address this, a year ago a special sub-committee of the IAT, Industry Ennis, began a campaign to attract knowledge-based industry. In tandem with the campaign, Shannon Development has lodged a planning application for a £120-million Information Age Park, with the potential for 3,500 jobs. However, since the campaign and the notion of the Information Age Park were conceived, the economic climate has changed radically.
Despite the downturn, Michael Byrne says negotiations are continuing with 60 companies that have expressed an interest in locating to Ennis. "We remain hopeful of future success," he says. With just over 15 months remaining until the end of 2002, the IAT has more than £2.5 million to spend. With a permanent staff of 25 employed on the IAT project, including marketing, research and technical staff, Byrne says the remainder of the money will go towards promoting use of the technology.
He says the IAT is examining whether to continue in some form after the project concludes. Acknowledging that initial expectations did make it more difficult, Byrne says of the project: "I think it has increased the town's confidence and I would be very confident that there will be a deep, meaningful change as a result of it."
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