Still leading the information age


25 Sep 2003

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Free broadband internet access for all. Where some libraries struggle to put on a paying service for its members, Clare County Library provides 17 ADSL-enabled machines at its Ennis branch, all free of charge. Four stand-up computers for email only and 13 for desk work. You don’t even have to be a member to use them; you can just walk in off the street.

Nine months after the winding down of the Information Age Town (IAT) project, its legacy is still apparent in Clare’s county town. But then it would want to be. You would hope €19m in free and subsidised ICT wouldn’t end up collecting dust under the stairs, or not all of it at least. And, of course, the hardware was just a small part of the whole. This was Eircom’s living experiment. If you immersed 610 businesses, 87 communities, two local authorities, 13 schools and 20,000 residents in high-grade technology what would they do? How would they react? And while the telco had its own reasons for running the scheme, those who landed the prize for Ennis naturally had different, if not conflicting, goals. Michael Byrne was chief executive of the project. He explains that the aim was “to layer an advantage on to the town. It wasn’t simply academic research”.

And did that advantage materialise? Yes, says Roger Leyden, president of the Ennis Chamber of Commerce. He points out that in general economic terms, the boom years were not particularly kind to Ennis.

The boom was based primarily on big foreign companies coming in, so if your town got no whiff of it, chances are it’s because the IDA could convince no multinational of its charms. In the case of Ennis, while nothing came in, the slow erosion of the traditional industrial base — in common with pretty much everywhere in the country — continued. Some 52 job losses resulted from the closure of manufacturing company Pacific Scientific last January while printing company Graham and Heslip ceased operations in February with the loss of 41 jobs. “But one thing we are lucky about,” says Leyden, “is because of our Information Age Town we have had over the past couple of years a number of small but high-end start-ups. They would be in the IT service sector, software development, website design and computer training.” Companies such as Kestrel 3D, Broadsword Technologies, MSS Software and AMS Technology evidence a mutual attraction between Ennis and the high-tech sector.

He also believes that the town’s tech saturation over the six years of the project will prompt many of the children who grew up in this environment to choose careers in IT. Not, on the face of it, the most inspired decision at the current time, but you’ve got to bet on a reversal of the ICT downturn in the longer term. The people of Ennis certainly are. Shannon Development has approved €9m in funding for phase one of the Ennis Information Age Park. The first 45,000sq ft building will be ready next September and ultimately it’s envisaged that 750,000sq ft of high-quality office space will be built over the next 10 years, providing potential employment for as many as 3,500 people. Note too that though the Eircom largesse has dried up, public commitment to a digitised community remains evident in such initiatives as the library’s provision of free broadband access.

Local internet sites are, on the whole, pretty good. The dedicated county library site, www.clarelibrary.ie, is a very powerful resource. You can, among other things, search for, request and reserve books, while the children’s, genealogy and history sections are well maintained. The counter on the homepage indicates more than a million hits in the past five years. The Clare County Council site (www.clare.ie) is fairly uninspired by comparison. Where the site map should be, it says ‘under construction’, a designation that is always hard not to be cynical about.

The IAT site, www.ennis.ie, remains bang up to date, however. It’s now being looked after by Ennis Information Age Services (EIAS), a company that grew out of the IAT project and which remains under the guiding hand of Byrne. He explains that the company has taken everything learned about website usability and accessibility over the course of the project and developed a consultancy service. So far, EIAS can count AIB, the Revenue Commissioners and eBookers among its clientele. All profits, if and when they materialise, will be pumped back into information age projects in Ennis.

In terms of turning people on to technology, Byrne argues that the project has been phenomenally successful. “All of the independent research that was carried out would suggest multiples of two or three times the ownership and usage levels of anywhere else in the country but even more than that, what actually has happened here is that people right across the social spectrum have become engaged in using the technology,” he notes.

By John Hearne