The lifeblood of any industry organisation is its ability to communicate with its members. The Irish Computer Society (ICS) does this in all the usual ways – newsletters, ezines and email – but it has now added web conferencing to its armoury of communications tools.
Founded in 1967, the ICS, a representative body for Irish computer professionals, has never been healthier. It has 1,600 members and doubled its active membership in the past 12 months. It also has a thriving training arm, ICS Skills, which holds the master licence for the European Computer Driving Licence in Ireland.
The ICS has half-dozen special interest groups — ‘networks’ as they called internally — each of which hosts a number of events every year. Tom O’Sullivan, professional services manager at the ICS, estimates that between them the networks host up to 50 events a year, or almost one a week. These range from breakfast briefings and half-day conferences to after-work gatherings. While the members who attend these mostly Dublin-based gatherings see them as immensely worthwhile, many other members would like to attend them but are unable to because of the travel involved. Recognising this, the ICS has included event reports in its monthly newsletter to members. However this system, while better than nothing, cannot match the experience of actually attending an event and participating in important elements such as Q&As.
Enter web conferencing and an Irish/Danish outfit called Onlinemeetingrooms.com. This company offers a web-based conferencing system called e-Touch that allows organisations to create their own online ‘meeting rooms’, in which virtual attendees can gather, debate, view presentation materials and throw questions at each other. In short, it sounded a perfect solution to ICS’s desire to open up its events to a wider audience.
The deployment began back in June this year, when the ICS conducted a trial webcast of an event. “The feedback was very positive,” says O’Sullivan. “We had members accessing the event from Shannon, Cork, Waterford and from hotel rooms in Germany and Brussels.”
The appeal of the system lies in its simplicity. Those planning to attend a webcast just need a PC, laptop, Mac or PDA and an internet connection. That connection doesn’t even need to be broadband, although the user experience is substantially improved with a faster internet connection. Before the event takes place, these members are given a URL (web address) plus a user name and password. Once logged on, they can see up to six panelists in separate window panes, view slides and listen to presentations. They can also submit questions in writing or by speaking into the microphone on their computer and will be visible to other participants if they have a web camera. What’s more, since the service is transmitted over the internet, they pay only for internet access and nothing else.
On the ICS side, the system is similarly straightforward. Since Onlinemeetingrooms.com hosts the service via its data centre in Denmark, no software needs to be installed locally. The ICS management is simply given the ‘keys’ to the organisation’s own meeting room in the form of a password. It can then create separate accounts for each member that wishes to join in over the internet.
“The service runs on any browser with a Flash plug-in and across any hardware platform including Mac and PDA. This means it can be rolled out across a network to every PC in an organisation without all the usual stress,” says Joe Garde, managing director of Onlinemeetingrooms.com, who adds that all video and voice communications are 128-bit encrypted to ensure total security.
The standard e-Touch package costs a flat fee of €20 per hour for any number of online participants but, because of its ‘gatekeeper’ role within the IT industry, the ICS is being given free use of the service for a year.
Although it is early days, O’Sullivan is more than happy with how the service has performed so far. Not only has the feedback been excellent, the attendance at events has increased by 50-100pc, he estimates. And because remote users have no tricky software to download, the ICS is receiving no pleas of help from confused members. “The only calls we get are calls to say how good it is,” he says.
By Brian Skelly