A $17.3-million project announced Wednesday by the Government of Ontario will see 16 rural communities in the province improve their online citizen services.

The idea behind the project, called Connect Ontario: Partnering

for Smart Communities (COPSC), is to encourage Ontario’s smaller municipalities to bring their level of online services up to a par established by larger metropolitan areas.

“”This is to make sure we bring these communities up to provide a level playing field in the province,”” said Associate Minister of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation David Turnbull.

More than 40 municipalities submitted proposals to the provincial government. Sixteen were chosen for the first round of funding, but more will follow, according to Turnbull. “”I anticipate that in the not too distant future we’ll have all of Ontario served by this kind of arrangement. I think that gives us a significant advantage for marketing ourselves around the world,”” he said.

Individual municipalities will receive up to $1.1 million from the province. The actual amounts awarded “”depend very much on the nature of the site and how ambitious it is and what it’s serving. There are obviously some locations that have a bigger site and there’s more hardware involved,”” said Turnbull.

Municipalities participating in COPSC will also receive matching funds from local private sector partners. In the case of the Niagara Region, where Turnbull officially launched the program, partners include Telus Enterprise Solutions and Sun Microsystems.

The types of municipal services offered will vary from area to area, but they could include registration for local recreational activities or a list of local services and businesses such as bed and breakfasts in tourism areas, said Turnbull.

Project manager for SmartSudbury.com Jody Cameron said the provincial funding will help Sudbury promote local economic development and educate citizens as to the benefits of technology.

“”At the end of the day, because you are building a community portal, you are enhancing services to citizens by providing that one-window access to the community using very sophisticated portal tools,”” he said.

It’s a marked improvement over Sudbury’s current online offerings, he added. “”The majority of the Web sites, with the exception of a few, are basically more of a first generation type Web site, which is a lot of static information with very little interactivity . . . . There isn’t a whole lot of value to the community.””

When SmartSudbury.com is completed, citizens will be able to personalize the portal and have access to local and national news, citizen and recreation programs, and links to other provincial and municipal programs.

Aggregating services and adding new ones is the key for Elgin, another of the communities chosen for funding. “”It’s really going to organize all of our scattered and diverse information into one easy to find location,”” said Donna Lunn, program manager with Elgin Community Futures Development Corp., one of the partners for ElginConnects.ca. “”It starts helping us move forward into the whole knowledge-based economy and it encourages local economic development,”” she added.

Several of the 16 projects were well underway before Wednesday’s announcement, including the Municipality of Greenstone, which is building a Web presence virtually from scratch.

The individual portal development projects are awarded to local developers whenever possible via a request for proposal bidding process, said Turnbull. Encouraging Web development expertise in rural areas is one of the side benefits of COPSC, he said.

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