Municipalities often struggle with infrastructure gaps — the difference between needed investment and the funds available for arenas, bridges, sewers and streetlamps. Many now recognize they have an electronic infrastructure gap as well — a lack of resources to create an adequate presence in cyberspace.
National, provincial and big city governments have been quick to embrace the digital revolution. They generally have the budget flexibility to restructure themselves to produce, then take advantage of, an electronic entity. They can see the potential cost-savings from digital internal information processing; providing services for, and two-way communication with, the public; and external communications for economic and tourism development. They also generally have enough advanced information systems and technology professionals to make e-government effective.
But as the Canada West Foundation pointed out in a 2001 study paper, smaller centres are stymied by a lack of expertise and competing funding priorities. In the years since, the urban-rural gap has widened. The paper, E-Municipalities in Western Canada, reported that government web sites typically begin with community and economic development/tourism information and links to community organizations and libraries. They then add information on government and services such as bylaws, budget data and council deliberations. With the information side established, they begin to add e-services, and ultimately, community interaction tools.
It all takes time, and money.
As the new economic development officer in High River, Alta., Scott Kovach knows he has to tackle the daunting task of distinguishing the town in cyberspace. The agriculture-based community has been best known as the birthplace of former prime minister Joe Clark. Kovach wants to promote it well enough that, for example, at least some of the 500 Imperial Oil employees moving west with their head office will settle there, instead of Calgary.
Joe Wozny wants to help.
High River is a 100-year-old town nestled in the meanders of the Highwood River, against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. Its 10,000 citizens enjoy great quality of life, but to stand out against other Calgary-area towns – aggressive Okotoks, for example – High River has to join the digital revolution.
Wozny, executive director of the non-profit Smart Choices Society, headed one of 12 “smart communities” projects launched by the federal government five years ago. The purpose of the project was to explore just how communities, businesses, citizens and governments could benefit from new technology by way of developing model regional web sites.
The model web site built by Smart Choices for the Coquitlam-Port Moody region of British Columbia. “took four years to develop and close to $12 million from federal government, two cities, and in-kind investments from a number of contributors,” Wozny recalls.
“It brings services to residents, non-profits and small business, and they can contribute as well. Non-profits have the ability to promote themselves. Residents are logging on for information for their everyday lives. It has allowed the cities to communicate information and economic development staff can attract new businesses.
“There’s an overall sense of community pride. There’s been a 25 per cent improvement in online registration and a reduction in staff loads. It has helped the cities adopt customer-centred Internet technologies in their regular operations. They can now use the Internet as a tool to benefit the citizens.”
The key thing is that people are actually using what’s available, so it’s not just wasted expense for a strapped municipal government. The interactive functions – what Wozny calls “dialoguing between residents” – has even caught the attention of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Business and several European and Asian countries.
So: How can Wozny help High River?
With soup, maybe. Citysoup.
With the investment already made and the wheel invented, Smart Choices wants to allow other communities to replicate Coquitlam-Port Moody’s success. It has packaged its template and portal tools, and the infrastructure for powering the web site, and branded it “citysoup.net” — everything you could want to know about a community, from soup to nuts. The graphical interface is either left to the municipality or available on a consulting basis.
Best of all, says Wozny, when communities buy in they become part of a co-op. They pay a small annual membership fee as well as usage fees, calculated at cost, for tools. That keeps implementation and maintenance costs significantly lower, gives them a decision-making voice at the table, and allows members continuous learning from each other.
“Cities and regions of all sizes have talked to us,” Wozny says. “They can leverage our expertise on a relatively risk-free basis, and they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. For $1.50 per person or so, depending on the content, they can have a full turnkey solution running within 90 days. We’ll come out and train people to build it, and we also offer access to ongoing learning.”
A look at the easily navigated web sites for Coquitlam (pop. 128,000) at www.coquitlam.ca and Port Moody (pop. 28,000) at www.cityofportmoody.com shows a tonne of information and services that can be scaled to fit the community.
What’s in citysoup.net’s “turnkey solution”?
It starts with the usual mix of e-government services and products — city hall information, business services (taxes, utilities, dog licences), facilities and activities (reserve library books, register for soccer, pool hours), bylaws, and crime mapping via GIS.
Then it invites community involvement and provides the tools — web site tools and e-commerce services for non-profit organizations and small businesses to create school; a community calendar filled by citizens; job postings and lost and founds.
It adds a component of social responsibility — bridging the digital divide by providing computers at access stations in the community, establishing a network of volunteers to teach computer literacy, giving non-profits a voice in the community.
And finally, “as an underpinning to these products and services, citysoup.net comprises all governance and rules and regulations of conducting e-government,” Wozny says, “plus a huge amount of content that has been generated for residents to use.”
Governance is the sum of talks with city policy makers, residents and the society’s own experience, a road map “to determine policies and procedures for engaging with non-profits and businesses, and rules of how e-services should work. We set those into a structured framework.”
The active portal is citysoup.ca. The site that describes the products is citysoup.net. Background is available at www.smartchoices.ca.
The Smart Choices Society has a mandate to be sustainable, with funding coming from licensing products, as well as federal and provincial governments.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for us to continue in e-government applications and thought leadership not only in Canada, but share it around the world,” Wozny says. “We’ll always continue to learn more and improve services and our view of what e-government and e-community means. Port Moody and Coquitlam are active demo centres; we hope to set up other centres. Groups using the citysoup.net structure will be able to learn and share information among themselves. We would assist the brokering of others’ advances as well.”
Perhaps, says Scott Kovach, High River can become another demonstration centre for citysoup.net.
“I think conceptually it’s excellent. From an end user’s perspective of functionality and navigation, it seems really good.
“I like the interactiveness of it. Folks can add their events through an administrative tool, so really updating the calendar is for the organization putting on the events. Those kinds of things, the business directory or any other access to important sources of information, are what a website should be.”
Kovach voices a couple of concerns, however. One is the digital divide. Among those who have computers, part of the town may be on dial-up modems for some time because there have been delays in installing SuperNet, the provincial government’s program to extend high-speed Pnternet service to every community with a school or library.
The second is whether citysoup.net’s technology is compatible with what’s already in place. “I wouldn’t want to have to start (over) from scratch,” Kovach says.
But he’s ready to learn more. “The concept has potential. It’s worth investigating.”
Melanie Collison (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in High River, Alta.