Portrait of an information age town

IMAGINE the following: An Irish town

Sounds a bit far fetched?
Well, not only is it not far fetched, it’s about to become a reality for Castlebar , Ennis, Killarney, or Kilkenny. And that reality is going to change the social and economic life of one of those towns forever and in the most positive way imaginable. In fact, so attractive are the perceived benefits those changes will bring that each of the four towns in questions has for the last few months been engraved in fierce competition with the other three in an effort to be chosen by Telecom Eireann as Ireland’s Information Age Town.

The winning will net some £15 million in information technology infrastructure investment by Telecom Eireann, which will bring in its wake a economic boost and huge changes in the quality of life for the people living there. This exciting initiative is one of a number of flagship projects designed to position Ireland at the forefront of the Information Age. The winning town will be a multi-million pound test-bed for the range of new technologies that will transform all our lives in the 21st century.

The voluntary work and voluntary financial expenditure that has gone into the preparation of the shortlisted towns’ submissions is phenomenal. For each of them, the process has involved thousands of hours of research and meetings, hundreds of days preparing documents, weeks of test-driving dozens of practical projects and months of detailed consultations with groups including local authorities, State agencies, Governments departments, Chambers of Commerce, education authorities, health care providers, disability awareness groups, tourism bodies and employers.

And that is by no means an exhaustive list. Almost no stone has been left unturned by any the four shortlisted towns. Right across the board, their canvassing of views has been intensive. Media coverage has almost reached saturation point. Manifestations of public support have been astounding, with thousands of people taking to the streets to mark their enthusiasm for the project.

Some kind of revolution has been harnessed in this extraordinary process. And if ever there was a precedent for something like it, nobody can recall. The entire process has been as moving for the participants as it has for the five judges, who now face the unenviable task of choosing a winner from among four really exceptional submissions.

Those judges are Alfie Kane, chief executive, Telecom Eireann; Sean Scalon, professor of electronic engineering, UCD; Dan Flinter, chief executive, Forbairt; Danny O’Hare, president, Dublin City University; and Gerry O’Sullivan, corporate relations, Telecom Eireann.

During the final assessment process, they visited, along with many others, the cyber cafes which some of the short listed towns opened specially as part of their bid to win the Information Age Town award. They have witnessed demonstrations by Government agencies and local authorities showing how members of the general public could, with the necessary technology, file their tax returns, access planning permission details from their local authority planning office, process health board and social welfare queries, or tax their car, all by simply making use of an integrated Telecom Eireann telephone and home computer link up.

They have heard impassioned pleas from public health nurses and other health board officials describing how they could provide much better quality health care and monitoring services for the elderly, the disabled, and various marginalised groups on a 24 hour basis for a fraction of what these services currently cost in terms of money, time and other resources. They have seen evidence of commitments from foreign investors prepared to locate high technology industry and create hundreds of new jobs in the winning town.

They have experimented with software programmes developed by home-based workers and people with disabilities, and they have seen how youth groups and others plan to exploit a huge range of job creation ideas even further. They have watched as educators showed how home-based distance learning, up to and including third level education could be available to those unable to travel. The quality of telemarketing ideas, the range of practical projects and the extent of public support has been overwhelming.

It has been almost impossible to catalogue, quantify or explain. As a decision is awaited, it’s nail biting and breath holding time for Castlebar, Ennis, Killarney and Kilkenny.


Electronic Banking

A place you won’t visit very often, since modern transactions all take place across the telephone line. Ring up to get more e-cash downloaded into your virtual charge card. Pay your telephone, internet and electricity bill before heading onto the net itself to shop for that obscure title you heard about from your book club. Operate knowing that all your transactions are encrypted and secure.

The Cyber Cafe

A cup of coffee and a chat with your book group, scattered across three continents. Today’s subject is ‘Mystical Realism in South American Literature’. Gabriel Garcia Marquez surprises all involved by joining in the lively discussion. Later you log onto your account to make sure your credit card won’t send alarm bells ringing when you pay for the six cups of espresso you’ve consumed.

Ireland and the World

The Information Age Town will occupy a unique place in Ireland and in the ‘virtual’ world. An entire geographic community wired into a global electronic one, the eventual winner will have the opportunity to conduct day-to-day life on the cutting edge of modern technology. And the rest of the world will have the opportunity to join in the experience, via the internet, videoconferencing etc.


Doctors working in the Information Age Town are busy downloading x-rays that never went to film. Patient records zip through the ether from specialist to specialist as record numbers are taken through the doors and passed back out, healthy and happy. Those in remote regions are treated over video link, prescriptions and instructions are received at the other end in the blink of an eye. Less and less time is spent on paperwork, as automatic entry systems provide a welcome respite from keyboards and copying.

Designer Craft Store

At the design shop the staff are packing mock Sheelagh-na-gigs and posting them off to ‘virtual tourists’ from America, who spent their morning on a remote tour of Newgrange before following the web link into that ‘cute little boutique from the Information Age Town’. The manager of the shop is on the wire to the bank, pressing the necessary keys to deposit increased wages - thanks to increased productivity - into the accounts of staff.

Community School

The ‘wired’ school will receive special guest lectures from specialists and academics from Ireland, Britain and the rest of the world. Got a report? Log on to the net and get talking to Aboriginal communities in Australia about what it’s really like to live in the Outback. After lunch, head for the study terminals, where programmes will move at your speed and learning will be tailored to your requirements. Download last night’s homework. Sorry, no virtual dog to eat in the Information Age Town.

The Central Library

And what’s more central than the entire planet? Here’s your chance to cruise the famous libraries of the world: peruse the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, leaf through the letters of T S Eliot, get that information from that graduate student in Ecuador whose thesis could prove so important to your own work. Use the bank of internet-ready consoles to connect to the local council, government departments, the Revenue Commissioners.

Reports on shortlisted towns by Brenda O’Hanlon