A Town Logs on to the Information Age

The Irish Times, Friday, 24th September 1999

Two years after Ennis was selected as Eircom’s Information Age Town, Gordon Deegan visited to find out what has been happening and how the project has affected the lives of local people.

Two years ago to the day, in a blaze of hype, Ennis celebrated winning Eircom’s much coveted £15 million (19 million Euro) Information Age Town (IAT) prize, beating off competition from 49 other towns.

During the intervening 24 months, 5,600 PC’s have been distributed to Ennis’s homes – at a cost of £260 each to the town’s householders – while more than 500 PC’s have been provided to the town’s schools in specially adapted computer labs.

Also, last November in a bid to establish the State’s first cash-less society, Eircom in conjunction with Allied Irish Banks (AIB) and the Bank of Ireland (BofI) launched the Visa Cash card allowing consumers to make small value purchases through a reloadable smart card or electronic purse.

Other elements of the project include a recently launched £2 million Business Programme with the aim that at least 50 per cent of Ennis’s 800 businesses will be trading goods and services over the Internet by the end of year 2000.

The project has also seen the establishment of the Ennis IAT website and aims to provide online access to a range of public services.

So two years into the three-year investment programme, with £12 million of the £15 million already allocated, what has been achieved by the much vaunted project?

According to Ennis IAT chief executive, Mr. Michael Byrne, the "primary achievement of the project is the buy-in of a huge number of people to really try to make this work for Ennis. People recognise that there is a huge potential benefit and I think it is impossible to think that the community could have bought in more fully".

The project has been fully embraced in the schools’ sector. According to school principal of Scoil Chríost Rí, Mr. Pat Hanrahan, the provision of the technology to the schools has pushed the education of his pupils forward by 10 years in terms of resourcing.   He said : "Those who have grasped the opportunity have benefited and with the children of the town on board, the future of the IAT project is safe".

Mr. Donal Crotty, a member of the IAT’s Information Technology Committee, is one parent who has seen the differences brought about by the schools’ project on his own children.  He labels the schools project the "shining beacon" of the IAT.   He said : "My 11-year-old daughter has Internet chat sessions and e-mail communications with friends both in Ireland and elsewhere in the world.  She sees the PC and the Internet as both a support in her education and as entertainment and fun".

"Key to all of this is the elimination of the fear of technology".

Another major strand of the IAT, the Business Programme, which offers Internet access, website design, ISDN lines, consultancy and training to Ennis businesses has also met with a positive response.

Travel firm, Tom Mannion Travel, is one of four initial "Business Champion" firms approved by the IAT under its £2 million Business Programme.  Director, Mr. Leo Mannion, says that the company has committed its commercial future to the programme.

The support programme, one of eight available to businesses, seeks to identify leaders in electronic business practices and provides up to £15,000 to participating firms.

According to Mr. Mannion : "It is a very significant move for the company.   The Information Age Town approach has been very proactive, helpful and foreseeing in the implementation of the programme.  It has great potential".

One element of the project however that has disappointed is the bid to establish a cashless society through the distribution of the Visa Cash card. Estimated to have cost £4 million to put in place, retailers and consumers have responded negatively to the one-year trial. Of 10 Ennis businesses surveyed in recent days, none reported a positive response to the project. Some said that no Visa Cash transactions had taken place in a number of days.

While the promoters of the Visa Cash project have been able to record the number of transactions taking place to gauge the level of interest, no information is available on the usage of the 5,600 home PC’s distributed in the town – the central element of the project.

Mr. Dermot Hayes, Chairman of the Disabled People of Clare (DPOC) asks : "Where is the follow up?  I have a PC since June of 1998; no one has ever come near me or asked to do a survey or asked me how I was getting on".

Eighty-two per cent of Ennis homes took up the IAT’s offer of PC’s.

However, Mr. Crotty says it is vital now that research be immediately undertaken to identify which homes are using the PC’s; who in the house is using the technology and who isn’t.  He says : "Such information is vital to the success of the project so that the IAT can encourage high-level users and bring on those who have not engaged with the technology to date".

It is understood that the IAT has commissioned a company to carry out research on the project. However, it is in the early stages and a full report will not be completed for 12 months.

Mr. Crotty adds that the IAT is suffering from poor communication where people are not aware of what work it is carrying out.  "For me, it is the biggest issue, as there are many people doing a lot of work, but very few people know about it".   Mr. Crotty cites the absence of the IAT e-mailing householders on developments relating to the IAT project, as proof of poor communications.

Mr. Byrne rejects the charge that the project has suffered from poor communication stating that the IAT has had a fairly strong flow of information to individuals through direct letter and by way of local press and radio.  He says : "I take on and acknowledge that we haven’t reached the heights of interactivity that we would want to get, but I think we should also acknowledge that we have moved on a long way".   He adds : "We need a lot more applications and a lot more online activity and to reaffirm people’s consciousness in knowing, for example, their own website addresses". 

He says that over the coming months a basic training programme may be offered to those "who never got beyond the first step".  He pointed out that a European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) course was over subscribed by 50 per cent during the summer, an indication, he says, of the local interest in technology.

Mr. Crotty believes that the three keys to success – applications, content and communication – remain as important today as the day the project commenced.  He says : "Its success will not be viewed in terms of access to PC’s or to the Internet, but to the level of use, the level of understanding and above all the level of value as perceived by the people and businesses of Ennis".  However, Mr. Crotty remains upbeat over the future of the project.

"Since Michael Byrne has come on board, he has brought a focus and a dynamic to the project not previously apparent.  He has also ensured that the project is now for the people and businesses of Ennis and not for the marketing objectives of Eircom.   There is still so much potential for the IAT project.  With improved communications allied to Michael and his team’s determination, I have no doubt that Ennis will consolidate its position as Ireland’s Information Age Town".

In relation to the community and voluntary sector, Mr. Byrne is enthused also by the manner in which local community groups have become involved in the project.  He says : "One of the most pleasant things for me in the project is that various groups are feeling responsible for their own constituency groups".

Earlier this year, the IAT made available £66,000 to 17 local community groups to purchase computer hardware and software and continues to liaise with various groups in the sector.

Mr. Greg Duff of the Clare Unemployment Resource Centre has expressed satisfaction at the impact to date while Ennis West Partners point to a number of areas in which the IAT has had a positive influence.

However, Mr. Hayes of the DPOC says his organisation is "fundamentally disappointed that many of our issues have not been addressed".  The DPOC formed part of the submission to Eircom that won the competition in 1997. He said : "People need to be more involved in the decision making and we feel we’re not being involved in the decision making at any level. We’re very disappointed about that".   He cites the inaccessibility of the standalone Visa Cash devices to people with disabilities as proof of the lack of consultation.  Mr. Hayes says : "In summary, we’re disappointed, because the community hasn’t been involved. The community has a lot to offer but we were never seriously asked for our opinion on any aspect of the project".

However, Mr. Byrne says : "We have gone out of our way to be as democratic as possible, at the same time we have a job to do within a certain timeframe and our office is as open as we can possibly be. Our record stands for itself in community participation".

Expressing confidence for the future, Mr. Byrne said the role of the IAT would be to provide a framework for the libraries and public sector, the business sector and the community and voluntary sectors to deliver content to the end user where much more content will be available to them over the coming months and years.

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