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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Jun 2003

Vol. 569 No. 4

Other Questions. - Information Technology Initiatives.

Dan Neville


82 Mr. Neville asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he will make a statement on the abolition by his Department of the information society community initiative and its impact on senior citizens. [217844/03]

Eamon Ryan


127 Mr. Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the position regarding the community applications of the information technology initiative. [17722/03]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 82 and 127 together.

The community application of information technology, CAIT, initiative was set up in December 2000 to fund demonstration projects that were to be undertaken primarily by the community and voluntary sector. Two CAIT programmes were launched under the initiative. These programmes sought to explore ways to provide those excluded from the benefits of information and communications technologies with opportunities to engage with them in a meaningful way. The initiative aimed to harness the experiences and knowledge of the community and voluntary sector to encourage citizens to participate fully in the information society. Funding of €7,444,516 has been committed to 121 projects since the launch of the first CAIT programme in December 2000. The projects funded under the second CAIT programme are coming to an end and the overall programme will be completed at the end of this month.

Because of the pilot nature of CAIT, an evaluation of the impact of the initiative was carried out by WRC, social and economic consultants, to identify learning for policy and practice. The evaluation of the initiative, which occurred alongside its implementation, looked at the experience of organisations in implementing their projects and highlights examples of good practice in relation to outreach, incentivising and supporting participation. It makes extensive use of case study data to highlight examples of good practice. Finally, it assesses the contribution that CAIT has made to understanding the potential role of the community sector in promoting inclusion in the information society, and more generally the initiative's contribution to the development of public policy for such inclusion.

Over recent years, information and communication technologies have become more and more a part of everyday life. CAIT brought such technology to those on the margins. I hope that with some refocusing by local groups, the work previously carried out by CAIT can be done within existing structures and resources. The evaluation carried out of the CAIT initiative will be an extremely valuable tool to these groups, and to bodies such as the Information Society Commission, in carrying out this important work in the future.

Technology "late adopters" need much more than physical access and financial support to make information technologies an integral part of their lives. The CAIT programme has fostered a change in attitude among members of the most marginalised communities in our society. A strong understanding of their potential to enhance our daily lives and a sense of empowerment and achievement as new skills are acquired have replaced a lack of confidence surrounding the new technologies. This profound change in attitude in some of our most socially isolated communities will be one of the strongest legacies of the CAIT initiative.

On a tangible level, the CAIT programme has enabled organisations to purchase IT hardware and software according to the specific needs of their communities. Although the CAIT programme has come to an end, the specialist hardware and software for use by people with a wide range of physical and learning disabilities, including adaptive equipment for the elderly, and an extensive range of literacy and numeracy software, will remain a fully accessible resource within their communities. CAIT has helped to address the burden of equipment and infrastructure costs, one of the key barriers preventing access to information technology. CAIT has provided the tools to empower communities to use information technologies in a way that brings about the maximum practical benefits, for example, as a communication and socialisation tool or an educational and information resource tool. CAIT has been concerned with usability for all, and not just accessibility.

The CAIT initiative has directly led to the development of a pool of highly skilled volunteer tutors, who have an in-depth understanding of the psychological and tangible barriers "late adopters" face in engaging with information technologies. A multiplier effect has been generated as computer literacy skills continue to transfer throughout communities.

The need to refocus on this scheme was the only thing the Minister said that made sense. While €4.1 million was spent on the scheme last year, only €700,000 will be spent on it this year. This scheme was established to help the elderly, unemployed and disabled to meaningfully use information technology. The Minister has destroyed that opportunity. The Minister's Department funded 121 programmes last year.

The Department has funded 121 programmes since the initiative was commenced.

These programmes have been abolished and older people and others who want to get involved with information technology will not have the opportunity to do so as the Minister is depriving them of it.

While the Minister fully defended this programme when the Secretary General of the Department met the three wise men before the budget, he cut it to ribbons when the budget came out. That is shameful and disgraceful, especially as it will affect the disadvantaged and those who are excluded from learning about modern technology and communications.

I do not deny that if money were plentiful we would have left the programme as it was. The 121 programmes were there from the beginning of the initiative. As one meets community groups around the country, it becomes apparent that the equipment provided stays in situ. Most partnerships and CDSPs etc. are involved in this programme. Now that changes have been forced on me—

The Minister should have defended the programme. He should have defended the old, unemployed and disabled.

One has to make a choice with the money one is given.

The Minister made a choice against disadvantaged people.

I had to either cut this or cut something else. One of the problems with pilot schemes is that they are stop-start. A more continuous effort through partnerships, community development support projects and other such groups would be a better way of doing this—

Where would they get the money?

They have no money either. The partnerships around the country are up in arms.

They receive money from the Department. Members will be aware that a number of new CDSPs have been commenced this year. I think the use of such groups is a better way of ensuring a continual turnover of people in these schemes. I accept that there will be a continuing need to upgrade equipment. One of the problems of a limited bid type system is that some win and some lose. We must have a more comprehensive approach to this and I assure the Deputy that I will develop such an approach.

In his answer to the previous question the Minister mentioned that the world moves on. If there is any argument in sustaining rural communities whose physical infrastructure has been undermined, it is advances in the use of information technology. The Minister is being totally inconsistent in overlooking the decline of many rural communities while at the same time pulling the rug from under projects that give people an opportunity of at least maintaining informal contacts with communications systems.

The whole point of IT is that people are not given hardware without being helped with further software or ongoing training in the maintenance and use. The approach is like that of using a thimble of petrol to start a car where the car has been left in the middle of nowhere. I urge the Minister to rethink his policy. If he wants to sustain and improve rural communities, he will have to invest in this programme in the years to come.

Given that access to third level education is much lower in deprived urban communities than in rural communities, one would have to put a particular emphasis on the benefit of this programme in urban areas. Because so many young rural people get to third level, computer literacy within families in rural areas is quite high. I sometimes suspect that a son or daughter or grandson or granddaughter typed the letter, but it is obvious that these skills exist within families. That does not happen quite so widely in the more deprived urban communities.

I attended a meeting last night of a city partnership which had ongoing computer classes, not connected with CAIT funding. Up to now communities have had to make a pitch for funding. I worry about that because it means the best organised communities benefit most. I would like a more systematic approach to ensure that the most vulnerable communities get equipment, software and continuing training, even if they are not so good at putting a bid together. I am in discussions with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on making education funds available for courses in the most disadvantaged areas to ensure a continual roll-out rather than the fixed-period pilot schemes we had under the CAIT programme. That is critically important. We are examining methods of funding, but I would rather do it through existing developed structures and a large number of partnerships and community development support programmes in the most marginalised communities.

There is one other group, the intellectually and physically disabled, about which I am very concerned. We should put a specific focus on and create a special niche for people in this category to ensure they can avail of this type of technology which allows them to communicate in a way that they cannot otherwise do.

Regarding the way the Department operates this kind of programme and others, the Department inherited the community development programme from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. For almost six years I have been in this difficult role of opposition. Other Deputies have probably had the same experience. However, although we are not told because we are Opposition Deputies, I understood that the Department usually advertises for interest in community type grants at this time of the year.

It is in today's newspapers.

I am glad to hear that. Applications are normally invited over a period of about three months. When the announcements are made, we on this side of the House are the last to know. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats Deputies have the inside track in that regard.

The Deputy can get a copy in the Oireachtas Library.

Beidh lá eile.

Most Deputies' experience of me has been that I have always been as accommodating as I can in the provision of information to public representatives whenever it is sought on any of the programmes I organise. I accept the Deputy's point. I have often asked the same question and wondered whether putting advertisements in the newspapers is the best way to proceed. It is a pity that Iris Oifigiúil is not as widely available as Buy and Sell in order that all the State advertisements would be in one place. It is very difficult to keep up with all the advertisements and perhaps we should try to find better ways of communication. I have noted that even when provided with information by e-mail, people do receive it because they are so overloaded with e-mails they do not have time to check all of them. We face challenges of communication. From an administrative point of view, there are two ways of creating obfuscation. One is by providing too little information, but an equally lethal way of creating total obfuscation is by providing too much information, which makes it difficult to find the information one wants.

That is our problem with the Minister.

It is like the Fianna Fáil Manifesto.