Diamond in the rough

Dubbed the Diamond Capital of North America, Yellowknife is home to 18,000 people and is situated in Canada’s North — with bitterly cold winters. Despite its isolated locale and severe climate, however, the city is prospering as a centre for diamonds — recently discovered north of the city — as well

as gold, gas and oil. It’s also blazing a trail in the area of municipal e-government.

At the end of March, the city finished rolling out its Smart Community project (www.city.yellowknife.nt.ca) that allows citizens to interact with government over the Internet for a variety of services, such as obtaining permits or paying utility bills. It also allows them to access community services online, such as registering for skating lessons or booking the local community centre. But what makes Yellowknife so unique is it managed to roll out these new services within the space of a year — and with an IT shop of only five people.

“”I think this city is probably ahead technically of most other cities (in Canada),”” says Frank Morassutti, business development manager, high-end solutions, IBM eServer xSeries, with IBM Canada. “”They have the advantage of being smaller so it is easier to implement.””

Ahead of the pack

The city rolled out its first online application in 1996. But, by 1999, its technology had reached the end of its valuable life. “”We had to change our core financial software and municipal software before we could do anything else,”” says Sharolynn Woodward, manager of information technology with the City of Yellowknife. A proposal was put forward to Industry Canada and the city received a portion of the funding slated for the Northwest Territories. However, when they went to RFP for the Smart Community project, they received only two proposals. While disappointing, Woodward says it showed that what the city was doing was new and unique because there wasn’t something out there that satisfied all of their needs. “”So we had to do the RFP in parts,”” she says.

The goal of the project was to make as many services as possible available to citizens using technology. “”Citizens have a fairly high use of technology in the home (in Yellowknife). It’s probably because of the fact it’s –40 C at times,”” she laughs. “”The city also has a high demographic of young people, who tend to be early adopters of technology.””

Originally, the city had planned to use kiosks where citizens could access various services. “”We started (the project) in 1999 and things have changed since then,”” she says. “”The technology didn’t really mature.”” When visiting Toronto, Woodward saw kiosks in malls where people could update their driver’s licences. “”I kept wanting to watch someone do it and there was never anyone there,”” she says. When it came to decision time, kiosks were scrapped and the city decided to pursue wireless access instead. The city teamed up with several technology vendors to develop different modules for the Smart Community project. On the hardware side, IBM was chosen in early 2003 for its blade server technology. Seven IBM eServer x8677 blade servers housed in an IBM BladeCenter, as well as three other xSeries servers, power a point-of-sale system that allows citizens to pay for any government service from any facility, with all municipal departments integrated into a Microsoft Great Plains financial system.

Diamond Software, a Microsoft Business Solutions Partner based in Red Deer, Alta., supplied the city with its core financial software (eEnterprise from Microsoft Great Plains) and integrated modules for municipal applications including property tax, utility building, business licences, animal licences, bylaw enforcement and permitting. Diamond also supplied the city’s Virtual City Hall component.

Class Software, based in Vancouver, provided the city with Program Registration and Facility Booking modules. Upon further investigation, the city also decided that Class’s Payment Manager was an ideal fit for its front-line cashiering system. Now, multiple bills from various departments can be processed in one location and permits, licences, taxes, utilities and registration forms can be processed.

Yellowknife’s IT shop facilitated collaborative efforts between Diamond and Class to integrate the two sets of products — something that other municipalities could benefit from in the future.

As part of the project, the city had to do a complete overhaul of its Web site. “”We used to manually update our Web site,”” says Ciaran Coates, systems analyst with the City of Yellowknife. “”The Webmaster was getting swamped and having to make decisions on content, which isn’t really his job.”” The city needed to integrate its various Web sites and provide content management. This time, it got 40 responses to its RFP. GDS/Ironpoint won the bid to provide a content management tool for the city’s Web site.

IT the bottleneck

“”As every mid-size organization is aware, IT becomes the bottleneck for any Web publication,”” says Coates. Now, each department has control over the content of its online resources and tools, and can independently add or update content with no knowledge of HTML. “”GDS provided the glue that bound a lot of the projects together, along with the design and project management of the Web site,”” he says.

Rollout of the Smart Community project began in January 2003. But it met a few unexpected obstacles along the way, which slowed things down. One obstacle was not getting buy-in from everyone they thought they would, says Coates. “”When we implemented Class, it took 10 months for TD Bank to certify the Class offering,”” he says. “”It was a real burden to us — we had taken away services from citizens for that amount of time.”” The city’s Web site was taken down last summer; because of the delay with TD Bank, it didn’t go back up again until February.

Change management was another issue. “”There was an awful lot of change in a small amount of time,”” says Woodward. “”We did the entire rollout over 12 months.”” Besides a lot of late nights and overtime, two major players in the IT department left halfway through the rollout. “”We were dealing with change in technology and organizational structure as well,”” she says. “”In an IT shop with only five people, this can have a profound effect.””

The Smart Community project wrapped up at the end of March. The Web site’s user interface has been consolidated so citizens can access all their tax, utility and general receivable accounts through a single window and make any combination of payments through the same window in a single transaction. It also offers some unique services, such as the ability to conduct a dog owner search to reunite lost pets with their owners. A snowmobile registration system provides municipal enforcement staff with a tool to manage registration of snowmobiles; it’s integrated with the city’s financial system and has the same “”look and feel”” as the city’s Web site.

But there’s no rest for this five-person IT shop — it’s continuing to build on the Smart Community project and has secured funding for the next three years. It’s working to provide wireless WAN networking to its employees and develop wireless applications, such as laptops in patrol cars. It also has a GIS project in the works for fire and ambulance workers.

“”While we are still early in the stages, now that this first phase is successful, the (possibilities) are endless,”” says IBM’s Morassutti.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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