Trikala, Greece

Greece's first digital city project bridges the digital divide and brings citizens into the decision-making processes.

by / July 2, 2007
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Mention Greece and the first thoughts that come to mind are its famous epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as some of history's greatest thinkers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
Discuss Greece with travel enthusiasts and they'll vouch for the country's glorious monuments, statues, architecture and its breathtaking scenic beauty. However, a discussion with digital experts will yield an earful about e-Trikala -- an electronic community initiative in Trikala, a medium-sized city located in Thessaly, northwest of Athens.

Lately e-Trikala is creating a stir in the digital community world, not just because it's the first digital city in Greece, but because within just a few months of its first phase completion in December 2006, the initiative is bridging the digital divide in Greece -- where on average, only six out of 100 citizens have access to or use the Internet.

Primary Objective
Funded from the 2,847 million Euro budget (approximately $386.62 million) of the Greek Information Society Framework Program, e-Trikala is more than a city getting wired up. Rather, city officials say the program's goal is to use various information and communications technology (ICT)-based applications to simplify administration, reduce telecommunication costs and deliver new services to improve everyday life.

"It also aims to offer new ways and methods to make citizens participate in policymaking," said George Vallas, the project's IT systems administration manager.

Two applications, Demosthenes and e-Dialogos, exemplify how e-Trikala - which began rollout in October 2005 - seeks to engage citizens. With Demosthenes (which means "citizen's force") constituents can lodge complaints or report city problems using an online application; e-Dialogos, an e-mail voting application, lets residents participate in local government decisions.

Since e-Trikala's primary objective is to make Trikalans active participants in the municipality's digital affairs, promotion of broadband use was the first project implemented in late December 2006, said Thomas Kalkanis, e-Trikala's former project manager. This includes free wireless access to the Internet for residents, as well as introduction of new technologies (like DSL) and installation of kiosks in public locations, which has publicized the advantages of broadband usage to Trikalans.

Other notable projects are the digitization of the Trikala library -- to make it one of the 30 selected libraries of the Greek National Network of Public Libraries -- and a Tele-care Center for disadvantaged groups of people under the distanced support of specialized work force. The Tele-care network includes a call center with emergency communication devices that track emergency calls from residents and forwards them to the nearest hospital for instant attention.

The Chosen One
But why was Trikala chosen as the first city in Greece to be wired up? The reason is pretty much the one that drives wireless initiatives in many of the smaller cities around the world. Being a medium-sized city, Trikala doesn't attract enough private initiatives, hence "the municipality's involvement to bridge the digital gap was vital," Kalkanis said.

The services are free to users, and the municipality bears all implementation and running costs. Global IT and telecom companies like TelePassport in South Africa, Cisco, Ericsson and the local telecom company, Algosystems, sponsored the project.

"The involvement of these companies, however, is just limited to partial-funding of capital equipment," Kalkanis said. "There's no interference or involvement in the day-to-day operational expenses like network maintenance or staff salaries, etc."

The city has also launched an additional advertising revenue model of sorts in which a sponsoring company would be allowed add its name -- such as "e-Trikala-TelePassport" -- to some of the ICT applications for a fee; the money would then be used to fund nodes. In addition, the e-Trikala home page runs advertisements and promotional banners. "This income is utilized for the network's further development," Kalkanis said.

According to the project office, more than 10 nodes

have been deployed with a network's speed of up to 11 Mbps. There are approximately 5,000 residential subscribers to the service of which 2,500 are active and 500 are daily users.

Getting Involved
So far, approximately 70 percent of Trikala residents have Internet access, with a target of 80 percent within the next few months. The impact of e-Trikala in terms of bridging the digital gap is already visible, Vallas said. "Compared to the national average of 6 percent Internet use, Trikala has already achieved 10 percent.

"E-Trikala is proving to be a great chance for the Trikala residents who feel distanced from the ongoing matters," Vallas continued, "to actively participate in the municipality's decision-making processes."

In addition, Trikalans living abroad, the younger generation and those who have little time to track and participate in administrative matters are becoming more involved.
"And all these make Trikala one of the few European cities to have achieved an impressive success rate of digital inclusion," Vallas said.

To push that rate further, however, e-Trikala's targets for 2007 are even more aggressive. The project aims to develop a minimum of 20 nodes to cover the entire city and attract at least 6,000 users -- a 20 percent increase and the minimum performance stated by the European Union.

Additionally work for implementation of a 15-kilometer0long citywide fiber-optic metropolitan area network (MAN), is slated to begin by April 30. This network will link many buildings, including the town hall, hospitals, education institutions, recreational facilities and the trade chamber, as well as police and fire services, the tax authority, meteorological institute and semi-industrial park of the city. The MAN will be linked to both the National Network of Public Administration and the Internet, providing high-speed, high-quality broadband services.
Among services to be developed, deployed and supported by the MAN are an electronic marketplace for local enterprises, GIS for environmental and emergency data, intelligent transport network and health-care program, a citywide emergency response system, urban telework centers and distance-learning courses for the unemployed.

"The aim of e-Trikala was to create a global environment for making business or public transactions electronically," Kalkanis said. "But it has gone far beyond that; it has given the municipality a great chance to creatively cooperate with the citizens in order to improve their lives."

Indrajit Basu is international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.