Connecting the Commonwealth

Back in May, it was announced that the Commonwealth Secretariat, a volunteer coalition of the 54 Commonwealth countries, along with content management provider OpenText, would be collaborating to create a global content management system that connects people, organizations and governments across the Commonwealth.

Named Commonwealth Connects, the Web initiative will be unveiled at the Oct. 28 to 30 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, Australia.

“The idea is to harness the power of 21st Century Web technologies within the Commonwealth community,” says Richard Simpson, Project Executive from the Governance and International Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat.

More than 90 Commonwealth agencies and organizations and 200 Commonwealth-related Web sites are active on Commonwealth Connects, which is designed to digitally enhance communication and sharing of information unique to commonwealth countries.

In addition to Commonwealth Connects, OpenText has also worked with the recent G8 and G20 Summits. Alex Benay, vice-president of government relations at OpenText, says that some aspects of the project are similar to other government Web initiatives, but Commonwealth Connects differs because much of its content will be supplied by online community members, groups and organizations. “We’re really hoping that it becomes a participatory portal where other entities and groups are actually contributing the content and enriching the dialogue,” says Benay.

The ambitious portal was rolled out in only four months. While meticulous planning and resource gathering went into building the social platform, the relatively quick turnaround was largely thanks to its cloud-based technology, which makes the storage and flow of this large amount information possible. “We could not have deployed this in four months if it wasn’t cloud-based,” says Benay.  

According to Simpson, a big challenge designers faced was to make certain features and functions of the portal, like search engines, calendars and opportunities lists, work on cross-site across the Commonwealth.

The idea for Commonwealth Connects began with discussions, networking and finally a partnership between the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs International Trade, OpenText and the Commonwealth Secretariat. “The whole thing was Canadian-led,” says Benay.

While the head office that administered the project was based out of Ottawa and Canada has played a huge leadership role in creating the system, other Commonwealth countries like Jamaica, South Africa, Australia and Singapore have been essential to the project as well. “This was really designed by and for the Commonwealth,” says Benay. “There was not a single contribution from a non-Commonwealth country throughout this whole process.”

In addition to supporting the flow and sharing of information, Commonwealth Connects is also introducing different technologies, opportunities and Web-based platforms to those commonwealth countries without advanced IT capabilities.

Because Commonwealth Connects aims to engage nearly two billion Commonwealth citizens worldwide, there is great potential for intelligence-sharing and business opportunities among both established and emerging markets.

“This is an important tool for showcasing our core values, such as democracy and good governance,” says Simpson. “Commonwealth Connects will make it easier to work together.”

Benay adds that the initiative will be an empowering tool for social, democratic and economic change as well. “It will give smaller or lesser developed countries the chance to try out eGovernment and digital government programs that they wouldn’t have the people power or resources to create themselves,” he says.

In the next year or two, OpenText and the Secretariat plan on capitalizing on the power of the smart phone by making Commonwealth Connects available on every mobile platform throughout the commonwealth. “The first things people buy in a lot of these emerging markets are cellular devices,” says Benay. “In Africa, a lot of citizens may not own a home, but they do own a cell phone.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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