THE five judges in the Information Age Town competition had a range of factors to take into consideration, but a key to the successful bid by Ennis must have been the decision to concentrate on three area of expertise - lifelong learning, health care and teleworking.
All three areas are of sociological importance. Moreover, they are of current international interest, with corresponding expertise available to be harnessed and EU programmes to be joined. Crucially, Ennis has experience in applying IT in these areas.
In the area of lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling are increasingly important in maintaining employment and improving career prospects. The other side of the coin is that more people have leisure time to put to use in learning new subjects - the so-called third age of learning.
As the Ennis submission points out, lifelong learning is a lot more than distance learning, and the introduction of technology as a training delivery mechanism is still in the initial stages.
The town plans to draw on international expertise and existing expertise within the town, concentrating first on four main areas: the increased use of IT in primary and secondary schools, linking all the Ennis schools both to each other and to schools abroad; increased activity in teacher training; development of self learning and taught programmes for those people wishing to upskill; and the increased use of computer training for professionals. At a later stage, a further project would be introduced.
Ennis is already carrying out pioneering work in its Adult Education Centre, which has linked up with GCOM Toeranta in Galway to test a desktop videoconferencing system, while the Clare Education Centre is part of ResourceNet, a network linking teacher development and resource centres across Europe.
The FÁS offices in Shannon, Tralee and Cabra in Dublin are developing self-learning courses for delivery over the internet, and Ennis plans to pilot and test these. Existing programmes, such as Virtual Factory, a pan-European initiative, are also to be examined.
IT offers unique opportunities for people with disabilities, and also for the elderly and their carers. Bridget Barron is a health public nurse in Ennis who has built up expertise in the use of technology in health care, and has attended many EU conferences and seminars on the topic. Ms Barron is therefore poised to advise on the implementation of various European health care initiatives in Ennis.
At the final submission to the judges, she spoke of old people being able to communicate with each other and with medical professionals through a videoconferencing system based on their own television sets.
The Ennis proposal is, in co-operation with the Mid-Western Health Board, to focus on focus on three main strands within health care--an initial linking together of health care providers, such as GPs, hospitals and pharmacists, followed by linking them to the general public; the use of communication technologies to contact support carers and other support grouped; and the adaptation of technology to the needs of people with disabilities.
The Dulick Enterprise Centre in Ennis, which trains people with disabilities, has achieved the highest success rate in the State in employment, Currently there are 55 trainees and a staff of 12. The centre is networked and has e-mail and internet facilities available to the trainees. The centre hopes to be able to use IT link up with people who are enable to attend in person because of the nature of their disability or a lack of transport.
The disabled People of Clare Ltd (DPOC), which among other aims helps people with disabilities who want to live independently of their relatives, has already used information gleaned from web pages to acquire funding. Seeing the possibilities of jobs in IT, it has installed various technologies such as voice-activated computing. Jobs could be available in telesales, tele and videoconferencing organisation, network management, running bulletin boards and web sites and teleworking.
Apart from the opportunities it offers to people with disabilities, teleworking also offers opportunities to avail of marketplaces far from home or the town of residence.
Teleworking has a variety of modes. Some people work from home, say three days a week, and spend the other two in the office. Some work from home totally. Some work in centres nearby. Even call centres, where people stil travel to work every day in the convential way, is a form of teleworking - for example, one centre in Dublin takes booking for a Korean airline.
Ennis has already been talking to a British company which is thinking of establishing a teleworking company throughout Co Clare. According to the Ennis Chamber of Commerce, with the optimum IT infrastructure installed, the town will be able to attract up to three teleworking companies with national and international clients over the next three years, and the number of teleworkers in existing companies should increase by 20 per cent.