We must maximise City of Culture 2013 digital potential

The site of the nearly-completed Telehouse at Fort George, due to open at the start of April. 0203JM25
The site of the nearly-completed Telehouse at Fort George, due to open at the start of April. 0203JM25

As we approach 2013 most people’s focus will be on the economic benefits that could accrue from the City of Culture project and the opportunities it will undoubtedly bring.

While the tourism and hospitality sectors will be the most obvious beneficiaries of the year-long events the digital sector should not be ignored.

The digital economy which is now the main driver of the global economy remains virtually untapped here. If are serious about building a sound, sustainable economy then local and national agencies need to grasp the opportunities it presents.

Derry could lead development of the digital sector in Ireland if we use the resources available to us properly. This will require action in a number of areas.

One area is the education system or rather elements of it where over the last twenty years Information Technology (IT) studies have become an integral aspect of the syllabus on both sides of the border. All major universities including Magee have offered a variety of computing courses at degree and postgraduate level.

But there are still gaps in the range of digital subjects available to the long term unemployed or young people leaving school without qualifications because traditional school subjects failed to motivate them.

Yes, there are courses like European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) which provide the basics of operating a standard PC and systems like Windows. But to date there have been no courses available to these groups in basic programming, web design or similar subjects which would be attractive to many young school leavers who are not stimulated by traditional subjects.

Following discussions with Derry 2020 (the training agency tasked with targeting long term unemployed) and the Culture Company I am pleased that they have decided to develop a range of digital training courses which will be rolled out and promoted during the City of Culture programme.

These courses will cover a range of areas including digital publishing, web design, social media and programming and will complement the creative industries which have already been established following City of Culture designation.

This is especially important given the fact that capital funding awarded to a number of venues across Derry including local schools, the Nerve Centre, Guildhall Press and the Gasyard Centre to name but a few, will result in state of the art digital facilities being put in place by next year. The courses will ensure that these facilities can maximise their potential.

The development of these courses should be incorporated into the education system from primary school through to third level.

Having also discussed the merits of these courses with the North West Institute I am confident that they will continue to develop relevant IT courses in line with the emerging industries dependence on relevant IT expertise and I would expect that Magee will also provide opportunity in digital technology.

IT covers a vast range of subject matters and disciplines yet there are certain sub-sectors such as digital publishing, film making, game design, and sound recording/engineering in which there are expanding opportunities not least because of the City of Culture but also with the increase in popularity of Ireland as a location for major film productions.

Another key sub-sector is the high end bulk employers in software development, insurance, programming and social media who have a range of offices or partner organisations in Europe. All of the above rely on a high quality and high speed broadband link.

As a result of a cross-sectoral campaign two years ago Derry secured the siting of the Project Kelvin telehouse which is in effect a super-fast technological highway connecting Derry to North America and Europe.

The motivation to secure this facility for Derry was so that we could properly market the City and Region to those high-tech firms reliant on excellent high speed connectivity in order to conduct their business efficiently.

So far this facility has not been marketed robustly enough for a number of reasons. These include a lack of personnel within Council and other agencies with the requisite expertise and knowledge to properly promote the potential of the Kelvin facility and failure of the development agencies to mount aggressive marketing campaigns. I am hopeful that this can resolved in the next few months through collaboration between Derry City Council, the Executive and our new MEP Martina Anderson who will forcefully lobby the European Parliament and Commission for Derry and the North on such matters.

Key to all of the above is the need to ensure that the local education system is keeping pace with emerging and developing technologies and that our young and not so young people are well equipped to take advantage of all opportunities that becomes available. This is particularly important where companies specialising in particular digital fields require ongoing training and development of their workforce.

Until Project Kelvin is properly marketed we will not realise its full potential and will only serve to inhibit growing the digital economy.

While tourism and the hospitality sector will be the obvious beneficiaries of City of Culture we need to be looking at what long-term benefits we can gain from it and in terms of creating sustainable employment in the city and North West region the future is the digital economy.

It is now time for all public representatives, educationalists, business and community and development agencies to maximise Derry’s digital potential.