South Dubliners now enjoy the connected life

12 Nov 2007

South Dublin County Council’s (SDCC) Connect project aims to help citizens use technology to improve their quality of life, providing easily accessible and relevant local information through the internet.

In its relatively short existence the initiative has already won or been shortlisted for several awards. It was overall winner of the 2007 Irish eGovernment Awards as well as the Local eGovernment Award 2007. SDCC won Innovative Organisation of the Year Award in this year’s Eircom Innovation in Technology Awards. Connect dates back to early 2006 when the project team was formed. The site received its official launch the following November.

In the build-up to this, the project team held events and awareness sessions for members of the public in south Dublin about technology in general, covering subjects such as using a digital camera or early steps to browsing the internet. “It was aimed at people who don’t use computers on a day-to-day basis,” explains Sabrina Fogarty, development officer with SDCC.

The work carried out beforehand meant that by the time of the official launch there were close to 60 community group sites already on Connect. “Now we have 110 sites live and another 50 or 60 in the pipeline,” says Fogarty. “People are very aware of the Connect project, so for example, a community group would get in touch with us to enquire about setting up a website.”

Setting up a site on the Connect portal is free of charge to community or voluntary groups in the SDCC district. Once they decide they want to set up a site, they can send representatives to a one-hour information session, which is usually held in a local
community centre.

“After this, each group must decide what basic information it wants to show on its site, such as contact details, a note explaining what the group does and possibly its logo. This is followed by a two-hour introductory training session to teach people about keeping the site up to date.

“We tell them it’s not just about putting a few pages together,” says Fogarty. SDCC recommends that at least two people from each group should attend these sessions. “If one person leaves the group, it means at least one person can look after the site at all times,” Fogarty explains. The entire process takes around six weeks.

Connect hosts sites in a range of categories, from arts and culture to community, community development, history and heritage. As an example of the kind of site that is possible, Lucan-based Beech Park Football Club won an award for best Connect site last year. Every possible piece of information about the club is available, including news, fixtures and results, as well as a link to pitch information ahead of the weekend’s matches. The site contains details on all of the teams from under-7s up to the senior team and the recently formed ladies team.

Since its launch, Connect has proved popular in the community as a starting point for finding a range of services. “We get a lot of hits every day,” says Fogarty. “It’s a place where people can come to get information about their area.” One such initiative under the Connect umbrella is Connect Me, which provides location-based service information. The Connect site is integrated with SDCC’s geo-enabled service that lets the public use mapping technology to access various services.

“Citizens can type in their address within the south Dublin area and find public facilities closest to them, such as creches, playing fields or schools, as well as other local shops and services. The online directory includes 6,000 businesses and 84,000 residential addresses in the district. It’s very handy for people who are new to the area,” says Fogarty. A second element to Connect Me is the ‘Report a Fault’ facility for services such as street lighting which are provided by SDCC.

A second project, Connect Centres, is intended for people who want to use the internet but who don’t have a PC at home. SDCC has rolled out free internet access in all its public libraries so that people can still use the services to find the information they need.

The new county library under construction in Tallaght will have 120 PCs available to use free of charge. All of the council’s public buildings have also been enabled for free wireless internet access and a list of these is available on the Connect homepage. According to Fogarty, some community centres will also be supplied with internet access.

Connect Schools, launched last April, is another important part of the overall initiative, says Fogarty. The project team has been working with St Aidan’s Community School in Brookfield, Tallaght, to develop a virtual learning environment for students.

By developing student-centred technology, it’s hoped to improve attendance rates, participation in class and, ultimately, better results for pupils. Not surprisingly, this project and the wider Connect initiative has attracted interest from other local authorities and schools looking to replicate the model adopted in SDCC.

Connect was showcased in Portugal earlier this year as part of the European eGovernment awards, where it was a finalist in the category of social impact and cohesion. “We definitely learned a lot while we were there and saw what other people were doing. We came away thinking we’re definitely going in the right direction for a project that’s so young,” Fogarty comments.

In the meantime, the site hasn’t stood still and recent developments include the addition of a weblog. “A website by its nature is quite formulaic. The blog is something we all use and if we see something of interest we put it up there. It’s an informal way of sharing information,” Fogarty explains. No matter what format, making information easily available to the public is what Connect is all about.

By Gordon Smith

Pictured: Students demonstrating the Virtual Learning Environment to Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin TD, at the official launch of Connect School Project, St Aidan’s School, Brookfield, Tallaght