Bridging the digital divide

31 Jul 2003

A blessing and a curse is how Chamber of Commerce president Mark Markey characterises Drogheda’s proximity to the nation’s capital. You get decent infrastructure and transport, access to markets, ports and the airport, but you struggle to engineer your own economic centre of gravity.

But with the new motorway and bypass, the town has become navigable once more, facilitating two new retail developments, one on Marsh Road and another in the town centre on Laurence Street. “A recent study says we’ve 72pc less traffic through the town. It’s great,” says Markey. And the road opens up more than just retail possibilities. The new IDA business park at the Donore interchange is a lot closer to Dublin Airport than anywhere on the southside of the city, and the ‘reverse commute’ — live in Dublin but work in Drogheda — is now being pushed with fervour. Alongside solid road infrastructure, the speedy Enterprise train can get commuters into Connolly Station in 38 minutes. With most of the towns in the country crying out for more and better infrastructure, there’s a lot to envy in Drogheda’s location.

The town’s online life is, on the whole, fairly healthy and, if county council plans come off, this time next year should see an even more substantial range of online service provision. Like most local authorities, Louth County Council is rolling out an Agresso management information system that will facilitate such things as online payment of suppliers, while a pilot scheme for taking in payments, traffic fines for example, is also being investigated. “Initially,” says Eugene Mulholland, head of information systems with the council, “we’re dipping our toes in the water to see what the response will be from the public.” Next year will see the nationwide rollout of electronic voting ahead of local authority elections, while interviews are under way to hire a geographic information systems officer who will pilot the transfer of things such as planning applications online.

There are 10 internet-enabled PCs in the local library available free for members to use. You book an hour at a time a day in advance and the service is always well subscribed. “In September,” says Mulholland, “we hope to have our three information services — the library, the museum and the archives — all accessible through the one interface. There are catalogues in both the museum and the archives and we hope to group all three of them together so you can make a query across all three databases.”

So, for example, a query about the Battle of the Boyne might list not only all the books in the library on the subject, but also artefacts in the museum and related documents in the county archives. While he reckons the public appetite for accessing services online is strong, Mulholland doesn’t have any illusions about the new platforms replacing the face-to-face interactions that remain the people’s preferred means of conducting business. “Louth is a small county anyway. People will always want to call in and talk to someone, but in this day and age, where a lot of people commute long distances, it’s a luxury to be able to call in. You can’t ignore the people who work in Dublin and commute up and down. They don’t want to be spending their free time coming in here, so if we can put services online, then that helps them. It just makes their lives a bit easier and that’s really what it’s about,” he explains.

The local authority sites are simple, but easily navigated and well laid out. That of the Chamber of Commerce is slightly higher spec, but there are quite a few empty slots and some outdated information. An explanation lies in the fact that the chamber is currently without a chief executive. Recruitment will begin shortly.

In the search for high-tech industry, Jim Mulcahy of Enterprise Ireland explains: “Drogheda is currently looking at what its strategy should be. It doesn’t want to duplicate what Dundalk is doing, but at the same time, it shares some of the benefits that Dundalk has.” Drogheda’s neighbour to its north boasts a vibrant institute of technology and associated regional development centre for fostering high-level start-ups. Currently, it is advancing plans to create a cluster in the digital media area.

Both Esat BT and Eircom have launched broadband packages, the former last October, and the latter this month. Companies working in the space say that the arrival of extra bandwidth has whetted the corporate sector’s appetite for all things ‘e’. Colm Piercy is MD of broadband solution providers, Digiweb. “Things are going very strongly,” he says. “It’s challenging just to keep up with the level of orders and sales that we’re seeing.” Louisa Maher of MOR Solutions, a web design and internet marketing company, likewise pinpoints the arrival of broadband as the catalyst for changed attitudes and appetites in the sector. “The take up is a lot better,” she says. “People are getting educated through finding out themselves, attending courses or asking questions. They’re becoming less afraid to ask questions about how the internet can help their business. And they are beginning to understand how they can market their business over the internet, that it’s not necessarily a tech tool, but also that it’s a marketing tool.”

“It’s a slow process,” she concludes, “but it’s looking extremely positive for the future.”

By John Hearne