Driving along the modestly sized road from the Poitiers train station to the medieval town of Parthenay, one hardly gets the impression of approaching a future on-ramp to the information superhighway. But looks can deceive, as this turreted town is one of four European villages participating in a Digital Town project.
In this historic village in western France, a 13th century castle houses Internet access lines and museum curators, who are passionate about antique pottery, and are also Web savvy.
With funding from the European Commission's DG III and XIII (the industry and telecommunications directorates, respectively) and several corporate sponsors, the Digital Town project in Parthenay, Torgau and Weinstadt in Germany, and Arnedo in Spain got under way this year as something of a social laboratory to define how citizens can use multimedia technology. The four towns have the collective goal of familiarising the public, local administrations and small businesses with the social and economic changes occurring as a result of the rapid advance of technology. The towns are linked digitally, and share technical information regularly.
The EC hopes to use the knowledge it gains from the experiment - about European towns and technology - in other locations in the coming years.
In Parthenay, social scientists from Toulouse are observing how the town sets up and uses multimedia technology to provide residents with information on local education, culture, administration, employment, and health.
Although Parthenay is now known as a Digital Village, you won't find each home linked to its neighbours and everyone surfing the Internet from their living rooms. Rather, the project is providing public access to digital communication tools. To that end, the town set up a BBS in January 1996, giving locals an option for electronic mail and discussion forums. Somewhere between 250 and 300 residents regularly access the town's BBS - housed on one of SoftArc's FirstClass servers - with their own computers and modems. It's a modest figure but the percentage of locals with PCs in their homes is estimated to be no greater than the French national average of about 14 per cent.
Even more residents have been able to access the BBS since July, when Parthenay opened the first of its seven public access centres where residents can use the BBS, Parthenay's intranet (called the Town-Net), or the Web free.
Digital Space, the first centre to open, has four PCs running Netscape Navigator and basic software applications such as a word processing program. Assistants are on hand to help anyone not familiar with the software, such as the 70-year-old resident who visited Digital Space and used the computers for more than an hour on the morning of the press tour to Parthenay. Popularity of the centre is expected to grow as the town improves the richness of its digital offerings.
For instance, the local museum is working towards a target date of next year to get photographs of its most valued objects on-line.
The town's Multimedia centre, is equipped with seven Macintoshes. All of the seven centres will be targeted for a specific type of user, and the Multimedia centre is meant for more advanced users who might be doing their own programming. Parthenay's Living Memory project is housed here, and genealogists - currently extracting village information from church records dating back several centuries - will eventually make information found in the ancient books available to all Parthenians on-line.
Like the other three Digital Villages, Parthenay is a small town. Size was a critical factor in choosing villages for the project, locals here commented, because such a project could never yield definitive results in a large or bureaucratic city encumbered with overdeveloped politics.
"Villages, especially small villages, are key players in discovering new uses for technology," said Michel Herve, the mayor of Parthenay. "Here we will be able to see how citizens can become co-inventors of new multimedia services."
In typical small-town fashion, the mayor's wife, Karien Herve, was one of the key players in the Digital Town project. She had just given birth to a baby girl the night before the mayor sponsored a press tour, and so was not present on the day-long visit to Parthenay.
But it was Karien Herve who bumped into WebMate Technologies president Fred Dufresne at a conference - the two got to talking about how to use WebMate's WebMate/Foundation server software to build an intranet for this town of 12,000 residents.
Paris-based consultancy firm Francis Senceber Conseil used WebMate/Foundation to build theTown-Net. WebMake/Foundation offers a fast development time and the option to update data quickly, Senceber said.
Conventional Web and intranet sites store their content in flat databases but WebMate/Foundation has a built-in database that separately stores content, scripts and formatting commands in Hypertext Markup Language. Because the database stores data and formatting tags separately, users can change a site more easily. And data stored in a database can be accessed more quickly than it can with conventional, non-database based Web sites.
When Parthenay eventually launches an Internet site, currently in the works, it will be a collaboration on the part of the entire town. This made choosing an easy-to-use software package critical, Parthenay officials said, so that citizens who aren't technical experts can contribute to the site.
"Our Town-Net will never be a finished product, because the Internet changes without end," said Senceber.
"I was confronted with two challenges," the mayor summed up, explaining that he wanted a project that would give locals both a heightened sense of civic responsibility along with a drive for local development. The interactive nature of multimedia technology fitted in perfectly, he said, allowing locals to be "actors" rather than passive participants in the technology project.
"It's necessary to be active," Herve said. "We want to create as much local access as possible, and new technologies can promote local development and responsible citizens."