Ministry moves surveys online

The Ontario Ministry of Tourism found itself in a bind mid-2003. With the addition of two new databases of Ontario tourism information to its existing database, the Ministry knew it would have to literally triple the number of paper-based annual surveys it distributes, spelling triple the cost to do so.

The annual survey consists of several pages of questions specific to the province’s tourism establishments to determine Ontario’s tourism industry’s success for each year. In previous years, the Ministry annually sent mail-out surveys to approximately 6,400 establishments in the province including attractions, campgrounds, accommodations, and golf clubs, which put costs in the $100,000 range. And, with the addition of databases from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) and the Municipal Property Assessment (MPAC), the Ministry would be facing costs of up to $400,000 — a price it was not willing to pay.

“Our database grew by almost 200 per cent,” said Nabeel Hamdi, senior research officer for the Ministry in Toronto. “Therefore, we looked at other options. Many people are going online in terms of either having a Web site or having e-mail addresses. We wanted to take advantage of that.”

Hamdi wanted a Web-based system built that would give tourism establishments access to their own information, one that would essentially mimic the paper-based forms of the survey and one that reduced the costs of sending mail-out questionnaires — to be built in a one-month time frame.

The Ministry sent out a request for proposal to four companies. Hamdi said he received a response from one company that said it could develop the access system on budget, but could not meet the deadline. Two companies didn’t respond at all to the RFP. The last company said it could not only develop the system, but could do it on budget and on time.

The Ministry opted to work with Internet Light and Power (ILAP), a Toronto-based Internet service provider that offers Web hosting facilities along with application and software development. ILAP had previously worked with the Ontario Hockey League in developing an online, real-time draft application, eliminating the need for team reps to meet face-to-face to conduct team drafting.

According to Scott Hicks, project manager with ILAP, with a fast approaching deadline, the first thing to be done was to transfer the Ministry’s existing database into ILAP’s Oracle database. ILAP then developed a Web interface using Cold Fusion, which mimicked the Ministry’s paper-based questionnaire. The company also incorporated e-mail notification to enable tourist establishments to know the Web site was live, and allow the Ministry to send the URL along with individual passwords to give establishments access to their own accounts.

With the infrastructure in place, the Ministry decided to break its databases down into four parts. The two new databases and half the traditional database were sent the paper-survey, while the remaining half that had e-mail and Web connectivity were sent the online update.

According to Hamdi, the Ministry saw a good response — approximately 50 per cent — from the online recipients.

“It was a good experience for us,” Hamdi said. “In terms of cost, it was excellent. It gave us an option to go online and handle a pretty large bulk of data. It also gave us the ability to access the database (while establishments were responding) to advise or offer guidance. With the paper-based system we aren’t able to do that.”

While the first round of online surveys only reached about 1/6th of the entire database (the newest two included), Hamdi said he has every intention to push for an increase in online usage.

“There is no question about it, there is no going back to strictly paper,” he said.

As for ILAP, which has been around since the mid-90s, working with the Ministry was a critical venture.

“It has given us a lot more credibility in terms of application and software development. It is almost like being qualified now,” said ILAP’s Hicks.

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