It’s time to digitise the nation, IIA CEO says

21 Apr 2010

Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill is on a mission – to digitise the nation. She believes the opportunities the digital age heralds for citizens and businesses alike must be grasped.

With a background in advising family businesses, Mulvihill is not only sympathetic to SMEs and ordinary people in the current difficult economic times, but she believes the opportunities of the digital age matter as much to traditional firms as they do to new start-ups or technology experts.

The campaign behind the week of the Irish Internet Association’s annual congress is aimed at making the public realise the power of the internet and services at their disposal, from uploading pictures on Flickr, making video calls via Skype, starting a blog or awakening in children the magic behind digital animation.

Why Ireland needs to be digitised

I asked Mulvihill why she believes Ireland need to be digitised? “It comes back to some of the points I’ve been trying to reinforce since I joined the IIA. It is the question over the digital economy – is it a digital economy or is it just the economy and we need to digitise all of it? What I’m trying to do is represent IIA members and the best thing I can do for them is drive demand, create investment opportunities for them and show people how they can interact and use the internet.

“There are people who have a fear of computers or feel it is not something that is relevant to them. But by digitising the nation and getting everybody online and encouraging people to look at the applications of the internet and how they can use it to add value to their lives we’d be doing a great service not only to our members but also to society, generally.

“Just think of the number of people who can call relatives overseas by learning how to use Skype, or children who can get excited about digital media, how secondary school students can get involved and understand the value of STEM subjects for their future careers. The opportunity to digitise the nation is to bring everybody on board and showcase what we can do.”

Business opportunity

Mulvihill is adamant that the digital economy represents a major opportunity for traditional businesses. “Prior to joining the Irish Internet Association, I actually worked with a lot of family-owned businesses in the SME sector and a lot of those were traditional businesses. What I would say to them is what is the big opportunity you can grasp this year that will change your business from struggling in a recession and break out. This is whether from the perspective of business productivity, through tools like Microsoft BPOS, Skype calls or using the internet as a sales channel.”

Ireland’s legacy of broadband infrastructure problems are a critical reason as to why not enough SMEs are using the internet to the same level of sophistication as their counterparts overseas, and more needs to be done to correct this.

“I think we do need to have a National Digital Development Plan at the very heart of everything we do. This needs to be the same as pre-boom when we set out a national infrastructure development plan for our roads, now we need to have the same infrastructural investment in broadband capacity and bandwidth.

“The more businesses are online the more demand for bandwidth we’ll have and the people who can control that need to make sure it is delivered in a very democratic way to all members of Irish society, and if we talk about decentralisation or regional development plans, they are not consistent if we do not have broadband accessibility and bandwidth available to everybody throughout the country. There are still black holes, there are parts of this country impossible to get a mobile phone signal, much less to get online. There are issues that have to be addressed.

“The great thing about doing Digitise the Nation is in doing that we actually would be engaging with consumers and really take a temperature reading of where we are in terms of accessibility throughout the country. Then we would have a really good feeling and a base for lobbying Government and agencies and providers to say this is what we need, this is why we need it, these are the potholes, these are the blackholes and what can we do about that?”

IIA congress speakers

This year’s IIA congress features major speakers like Bill Liao, founder of European social network for businesses and Bill Thompson, the pioneering technology journalist who established The Guardian’s technology website, as well as Anthony Whelan, Chef de Cabinet for EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes. The conference will also feature contributions from economist Jim Power and digital marketing entrepreneur Colm Grealy.

The inspiration for this year’s congress, Mulvihill explained, is where the internet industry and Ireland find themselves at this point in time. We are 10 years on from the crash of 2000, yet 10 years away from 2020 and a vision of where Ireland can be.

“After the bubble burst, the internet industry had to start afresh and get back to basic business principles and sound business models. We are at this lovely half-way point where it’s important to take stock. The industry as a whole looks west to the US and things coming out of Silicon Valley. While that is very important and gives good inspirational road models, we also have to recognise that we are here, Ireland is part of the EU and the size of the market on our doorsteps here.”

Returning to Digitise the Nation, Mulvihill called on IIA members to really showcase their technology and abilities in their respective communities. “We’ve asked our members to work within their local counties, communities and towns to bring digital agenda to as many people as possible. There are some really interesting activities happening, such as a Skypethon and we have digital animators who will go to their local school and show children how digital media is made.

“They are the fun activities but also we have very much a business-to-business element – we have experts in the IIA who are very happy to share their skills and knowledge with local business communities as part of digitise the nation,” Mulvihill said.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years