Guide to the Information Age


Showcase town ripe for virtual advance

"If Telecom Eireann is looking for a showcase town, then what could be better than one that has been an internationally-acclaimed tourist destination for 200 years, attracts two million Irish and foreign visitors a year and has maintained a solid track record in business and industry for decades?" asks Kevin Moynihan, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and a member of the taskforce co-ordinating the bid to have Killarney chosen as Ireland’s Information Age Town. That taskforce is a sub-committee of Killarney Working Group, founded 10 years ago to represent an amalgam of public and private bodies.
"With a population of just under 9,000, a thousand of whom are employed in industry, we may be the smallest of the four shortlisted towns in terms of population. We don’t have an RTC, we’re not a country administrative centre and we’re about as peripheral as you can get in the geographical sense - but we see all those factors as positive advantages in the context of how Telecom Eireann could maximise its return on infrastructure investment and how the people of Killarney could exploit the project’s enormous ‘quality of life’ enhancing features to full potential," adds Moynihan.
The Killarney taskforce has covered a lot of ground since it was formed six months ago to make this bid. Its six members represent bodies including the Urban District Council, Chamber of Commerce, Killarney of the Welcomes, the local branch of the Vintners Federation, Forbairt, Kerry Enterprise Board, the Office of Public Works and many others.
Since April, the taskforce has set about establishing three major projects designed to demonstrate the practical rather than theoretical advantages of what they have affectionately nicknamed KATE (Killarney and Telecom Eireann).
Each of these major projects has and will continue to have a very real purpose. Killarney now sees itself poised to take full advantage of the information age concept and the shelf like of each these specially-designed projects will extend far beyond the final winning town announcement date.
The first of the major projects was a cyber cafe in Scott’s Gardens. It functioned as a public information office, disseminating information on KATE as well as offering a free internet access point for both visitors and local people. Since it opened in August, over 1,000 people of all ages and backgrounds - including visitors from 19 countries - have visited it to learn more about the information age concept as well as to use the computers installed there.
The premises are owned by the Gleneagle Hotel Group. The Cafe/Information Age Town office has proved so popular, however, that it is hoped it will be kept open in the future, probably operated on some form of subsidised basis.
Because Killarney is not a public services administration centre, people living there have to travel some distances for everything from accessing planning permission information to processing motor taxation payments, to dealing with the Revenue Commissioners, to processing health board and Social Welfare queries.
The challenge that poses for the disabled, the elderly and those who do not have private transport are obvious.
This and the fact that technology eliminates peripherality were among the factors that influenced the development of the taskforce’s second project. It was designed as yet another manifestation of the practical benifets that would accrue from being chosen as Ireland’s Information Age Town.
Inspired by the concept of having a government one-stop shop, Killarney Urban District Council and Kerry County Council spearheaded a trial project by setting up an office in a specially designated 3,000 sq ft premises in the town centre. Some 23 government agencies actively cooperated in an effort to demonstrate how a facilitation point/one stop- shop for all public services information would operate in a real life.
The Southern Health Board offered telemedicine demonstrations. The Ordenance Survey Office showed how someone could order survey maps by e-mail. The Revenue Commissioners demonstrated how to use electronic methods for filing tax returns. Kerry County Council showed how the Planning Office in Tralee could be accessed electronically.
The KATE taskforce was greatly encouraged by public reaction and interest in these demonstations. Their ambition to create the protype for Ireland’s first paperless public services facility is now regarded as achieveable. In fact, the entire exercise proved so successful, it has now become a model for goverment departments looking at ways of revolutionising public services delivery in Ireland.
Killarneys third project was designed to challenge the problems posed by seasonal employment in a town where the economic infrastructure is predominantly based on tourism. Simultaneously, they examined ideas for exploiting two of the world’s fastest growing business sectors - tourism and telecommunications. The task force set up telecommunications focused training facilities in a section of the original Pretty Polly plant. KATE has also been researching the feasibility of developing the Gulliver Hotel accomodation and reservation system into a nationwide service from this Killarney base. It has worked on this project with Fex co, a telemarketing and financial services multinational based in Killorglin, from where it provides a European processing facility for the Western Union money tranfer system.
Together, they have also looked at ways of establishing Killarney as an information age technology national training resourse, with company’s and individuals taking advantage of its special facilities and accomodation infrastructure during the off-season months.
Finally KATE, in association with the Killarney Technology and Enterprise Centre, has been investigating the practicalities of establishing incubation units in the original Pretty Polly factory premises. (That plant closed three years ago with the loss of 400 jobs, but owners the Sara Lee Corporation are prepared to lease part of the premises to KATE for a peppercorn rent of £1 pound per year.)
KATE also set up a website in association with the Irish company Nua for showcasing Killarney as a tourism destination and as a way of showcasing the various projects developed as part of its bid to win the Information Age Town award. Plans are now in hand to develop that further.
Throughout the last six months, Killarney Chamber of Commerce has been reenforcing the message that most of the towns 600 businesses could and should use information age technology.
"The vast majority of people who drive don’t understand what goes on under the bonnet. Computers and information age technology are no different. Just one example off how far we have come in a few months in creating awareness was the Chamber of Commerce initiative to increase e-mail usage by local businesses. Six months ago only 7 per cent of members used e-mail. Now it’s 50 per cent. We hope to have it up to 75 per cent by year end," explains Moynihan. Outside business, enthusiasm for adopting and exploiting Information Age Technology is no less dimmed.
For decades, Killarney has been a national leader in the care of the mentally handicapped and others with special needs. Groups working with the disabled have now designed a project geared to provide the elderly and the disabled with a homebased monitoring and security system. They have also been looking at ways of making a range of distance learning facilities more accessible to people unable to travel to schools, RTC’s and universities. They have developed a range of information age technology job creation ideas for people who are house bound.
A settled traveller is in the process of initiating the design of a web site aimed at displaying storytelling, music and other aspects of travellers’ culture in an effort to make it more widely available and understood.
An education group has identified a portable computer system with 30 separate wordprocessing units designed to improve keyboard skills while circumventing the challenge posed by shortages of computer hardware facilities in some primary schools. "In anticipation that our bid to secure the Telecom Eireann Information Age Town Award, we have put in place a human behavioural study with the assistance of the European Social Affairs Centre at UCC," says Moynihan.
He continues: "In many respects, what the taskforce had to do was relatively easy. In each case, suggestions came from the ground up. Stimulating public interest was never a problem. Our main challenge was how best to convert all that creativity and energy into tangible and lasting reality. We were lucky that the taskforce members had previously worked extremely well together on a variety of other major projects. Each of them was also both highly experience to draw upon. In addition to that, the amount of voluntary help we got from the community was staggering.
"The taskforce is chaired by Michael Friel, a Forbairt executive responsible for the south Kerry and west Cork areas. Other members include town clerk Carmel Brosnan, hotelier Michael Rosney, and school teacher, former Kerry footballer and Urban District Council member Michael Gleeson. The project coordinator was Frank Lewis, a public relations consultant.
"Killarney is hugely proud of its natural beauty and its tourism trade but it needs other sources of wealth and employment. Information age technology is the ideal complementary way to create that wealth and those jobs. It’s difficult to express just how committed every sector of Killarney life is to this initiative. It’s overwhelming," concludes Moynhan.