Quest for Canada’s Smartest IT: And the winners are …

An organization in the education sector that has followed up its network overhaul by offering increased Internet access to local communities wowed the judges at the second-annual Quest for Canada’s Smartest IT Thursday night.

Produced by London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research with IBM and other partners, the Quest put the spotlight on nine finalists in three categories: smartest IT project, greenest IT project, and a “wow” winner that stood out among all the others. The Quest is aimed at celebrating the technology success of mid-market IT departments and culled online submissions from across the country.

Pembina Trails School Division in Manitoba took the “Wow” prize for the ongoing success of its dark fibre optic network, a project that began in 2004 and has had an impact on more than 14,000 students from kindergarten to secondary school level along with some 2,000 teachers and faculty members across 34 locations. Although a finalist in the “Greenest IT” category, Pembina Trails IT director Derek Boutang admitted sustainability wasn’t necessarily the top priority as the project unfolded.

“Every dollar spent on IT is one less spent in the classroom,” he said during a roundtable discussion with finalists immediately preceding the gala ceremony in Toronto. “We wanted to better manage the services we were providing. The board gambled on the network a little bit.”

The payoff, however, has been huge. Thanks to the more consolidated network running out of head office, Bountang said he’s saved hundreds of thousands of dollars that would otherwise have had to go into new server purchases. Even better, computer labs at various schools are less noisy and don’t eat up as much energy. “It’s less money, and a better emphasis on learning,” he said.

As the network has evolved, Pembina Trails began offering free Wi-Fi hotspots at its schools, and set up kiosks that could access it outside of schools, including disadvantaged neighbourhoods. “In some respects we are situated in one of the highest-income areas in Winnipeg, but also one of the lowest-income areas,” he said.

This sense of local outreach impressed James Alexander, senior vice-president at Info-Tech Research Group and one of the Quest’s judges. “They took this IT project and extended it to the rest of the community at large, which I think is the really cool part,” he said.

The Smartest IT award went to Delta, B.C.-based Apollo Machinery, a maker of hydraulic manifolds. Apollo created a system, Tool Wall, that is able to reduce the setup time on CNC machines from a few hours to minutes. Essentially, Tool Wall centralizes data that is normally scattered among CAD, CAM, consumable dispensary systems, tool measuring devices and machine monitoring products.

According to Peter Faust, the firm’s president, the effort took four and a half years and was a direct result of government assistance towards research and development.

“It was an accidental product,” he said. “It was only meant to be internal. Then we started to hire people to help us commercialize it. We were not an IT company at all.”

The Greenest IT award went to Lipton Chartered Accountants, which deployed a range of portals and other technologies that allowed its employees to drastically reduce the amount of paper. Tax returns, for example, can be sent to accountants via PDF on a disk or through a portal rather than stored in cardboard boxes.

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