Speaking Note for Minister of State with Responsibility for older people – Máire Hoctor T.D. at the Citizen First Conference, Old Ground Hotel, Ennis, Co. Clare

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address you today. I want to thank Liam Conneally for the invitation.

This is an important conference and I am delighted that it is being hosted here in Ennis.

Its important for a number of reasons – but mostly because it is really important that we achieve the goal of including all citizens when it comes to the use of technology – and this conference should, I believe, assist with that objective.

Another thing which appeals to me about this event here today is that it is a partnership. One in which several international partners are working together – sharing not just an objective but knowledge on how best to achieve their common goals. I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the other “Citizen First” partners here today from the UK, from Belgium from the Netherlands.

Most of us, and I include myself in this, are not always as comfortable with technology as we might like – and so we do not always get the advantages from its use that we could.

Technology is making possible all kinds of impressive things now. I’m told there are now technologies that use sensors to monitor the movements of older people living alone and they can alert family members or neighbours if the person has had a fall. There is even clothing now that can monitor your health. There are all kinds of health benefits that technology can make possible – and some of these are covered in your fiche on eCare and eHealth.

As you would expect I have a particular interest in older people – and I know that older people are amongst the least likely to use, and therefore, to benefit from, technologies.

The statistics bear this out. Just over 460,000 people aged 65 or over lived in Ireland at the last census (2006). Of those aged 65 to 74 only 18% had used a computer or accessed the internet. When you look at everyone over 65, I believe the figure is closer to 1 in 10 – so up to 9 out of ten older people are missing out. That should be a cause for concern. It is – because the internet as a tool can offer so much to older people – and they don’t need to be missing out.

Older people can benefit from the internet as a tool in a wide range of ways, for example:-

•Using e-mail to keep in contact with family and friends across the world – so they can talk with their children and grandkids without worrying about running up the phone bill
•They could avail of cheap phone or even audio visual communications with others anywhere in the world
•You can get information on any topic at astounding speed. The internet now gives us almost instant access to what is essentially the biggest library in history. So whether its information on entitlements, or retirement issues or about your hobbies or interests or even health issues – it can be there for you at your fingertips.
•How many older people for example know that they can read daily newspapers from around the world – mostly for free
•We all know it’s possible to research holiday destinations, book tickets and pay bills like ESB, motor tax etc without having to leave your home – and it is also possible to watch TV, listen to the radio or watch or download videos – the list goes on and on.

Then there is Web-2 and the opportunities which it affords. Social networking sites are becoming very popular – particularly amongst young people. But there are social networking sites designed specifically for older people. These can play a useful role in helping older people to keep socially active and creative. Of course many older people are reluctant to engage with modern technologies like the internet – we shouldn’t be surprised about that. But we can change that situation for the better – or at least we can offer older people opportunities to engage if they want to.

I know that many – if not most, older people do want to engage more with technology – where it makes sense for them. It can be relatively simple tings like being able to book airline tickets – or reserve a library book pay a bill or just to get information.

You have rightly highlighted the importance of awareness. People are only going to use technologies if they have a reason to. Technologies like the ATM (automatic teller machine) and the mobile phone are now commonplace and used my most people – because they deliver benefits that people appreciate – and because they are easy to use.

When it comes to older people these same two key factors are important if we want to get them to use technology to their own advantage. We need firstly to show them that the technology has some thing relevant to offer them – that will benefit them in a real way. Secondly – we need to dispel the common perception that it is complicated or difficult to use.

A piece of research conducted last year for the department of the Taoiseach was interesting in this regard – and relevant to what you are focusing on here today. It brought together groups of older people who didn’t use the internet – and looked into their perceptions of the internet. A presentation was then made to those seniors showing them how the internet might be relevant to them – and showing how easy the internet is to use – and how easy eMail is to use.

As a result, most of those people indicated two significant things. Firstly they were surprised how easy it could be to use – and most of them – because they could see how useful it would be to them – then wanted to use it.

That highlights two of the key challenges that we face in involving older people in the knowledge society. We need to communicate to them that it is relevant – what it can do for them. Then we need to assist them in participating – which, as you know, will entail many aspects – including ensuring they can access the technology and that they have the confidence and skills to get what they want out of it.

One thing is crucial – and it is central to the theme of this conference – the need to focus on the citizen – and their needs. You are right to do that – because our objective needs to be to get the technology working for people.

Sharing info on what works – it is so important – but it is not always done. It is an important aspect of this Citizen First initiative – one which I fully expect will benefit further from this conference.

I also want to applaud your focus on the practical here at the conference – in the presentations that will be made on what has been found to be effective, and also through initiatives such as the Citizen First information fiches. I have had a look at some of them on the website and I think there is a lot of very useful information there – the type of information people with similar objectives should find very relevant and useful.

My colleague Sean Power – Minister with responsibility for Information Society – would I know be very interested in the proceedings here today. He, along with Minister Eamon Ryan and officials at the Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources are currently working on Irelands new Knowledge Society Action Plan.

I expect the new plan will also reflect the importance of eInclusion – of ensuring precisely what you are focusing on here today – that technology should include all of our citizens.

Many of the technological benefits will need infrastructure – and broadband will be crucial – not just to facilitate technologies we know about – but some that have not even been though of yet. That’s why Communications Minister Eamon Ryan is working to ensure that we will have the broadband infrastructure that we need.

The issue of coverage is being addressed by the National Broadband scheme which by early 2010 will ensure that a broadband service is provided to all areas of the country that do not currently have a service.

There is also a need to go beyond that. Minister Eamon Ryan recognises the importance of looking to and preparing for the future. That’s why he has also produced a consultation document on Next Generation Broadband on which submissions can be made until 7th October. In addition he is also actively seeking views and ideas on our future broadband needs and how best to progress them through a forum involving key players in Dublin Castle on 30th of this month. He is also facilitating wider engagement through an on-line consultation forum. His vision – one that I share – and on which I think we would all agree – is to ensure that we will have the infrastructure we’re going to need to develop our economy and to cater for the needs of our citizens.

You have a lot to talk about and to share here. From what I have already seen it is obvious that some very practical progress is being made. In one of your information leaflets it said that some things may only possible through the internet – like the plumber who will probably have no choice but to order his supplied through the internet. No doubt that may in time apply to many areas. It further highlights the importance that we succeed with our shared objective of providing opportunities for all so that they won’t be excluded in the future.

In closing, thank you again for the opportunity to address you here today. I wish you well in what I both hope and expect will be a very worthwhile and important engagement. I would be interested in learning the outcome in due course as I am sure will several of my colleagues in Government.

Thank you.