First Nations group conferences across borders

Encouraged by the success of an international conference conducted with conference calls and personal computer software, a First Nations organization in northern Ontario is now planning to apply the same technology to distance education and telehealth projects.

The Kuh-ke-nah Network of Smart First Nations, based in Sioux Lookout, Ont., received funding from the federal government’s Smart Communities program in 2000. It was the aboriginal demonstration project chosen along with one from the north and one from each of the provinces to receive up to $5 million each in matching funding to integrate information technology and telecommunications into community life.

As part of the project, the Kuh-ke-nah Network, or K-Net, held regional and national conferences in the first two years of the project. This year, the group wanted to organize an international conference to share what it had learned with other native groups around the world. Because of the cost of bringing people together in one place, K-Net decided to try a virtual event, explained John Rowlandson, an independent information technology consultant on Salt Spring Island, B.C. who was co-facilitator of the conference.

The resulting conference in March of this year covered most of the world, with participants on seven continents, said Jesse Fiddler, technical director at K-Net. Participants used San Francisco-based Macromedia Inc.’s Breeze software, allowing them to transmit PowerPoint presentations and do screen-sharing among locations.

K-Net had developed some conferencing software of its own, but “that was more suited toward asynchronous conferencing,” Fiddler said. “It wasn’t sophisticated enough to do what we were looking for.” The group also considered other commercial conferencing tools, but liked Breeze because it would work with almost all users’ computers and didn’t require additional tools such as Java to be installed. Its built-in support for PowerPoint — “a near-universal piece of software,” Rowlandson said — was also an advantage.

Some limitations did show up. “We found out all about corporate firewalls and how Breeze can’t penetrate them,” Rowlandson said. K-Net found some government offices with firewall protection simply couldn’t use Breeze to communicate with others outside those offices. This was a fairly minor headache for the K-Net organizers because most conference participants were not in government and corporate offices, he added.

Fiddler said he would have liked Breeze to support more types of multimedia files. “A lot of times you have content and things that don’t go into PowerPoint.” He added that if he were doing it again he would give participants more time to get used to the software before the conference. Although the conference organizers conducted pilot tests with Breeze earlier, the software was installed on the server used to run the conference just eight days before the event. Participants found it easy to use, Fiddler said — “most of the time they could just go ahead and use the software right away” — but they didn’t have time to learn to use all of its capabilities.

Among the conference participants was a group from Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, an indigenous university in New Zealand. Contacted by e-mail, Tom Winitana, a lecturer and IT person, said he found Breeze “an excellent tool,” and Graeme Everton, a computer technician with Te Wananga-o-Raukawa, said the university expects to increase its own use of such technology in the future.

Now, K-Net has begun a pilot project using Breeze to train telehealth workers in remote communities. K-Net began providing telehealth services in 1999, starting in five communities and expanding to around 25 today, Fiddler said. Doctors in larger northern communities such as Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay, as well as elsewhere in Ontario, can conduct remote examinations using teleradiology and other tools.

“We have local telehealth co-ordinators in each community that do all the co-ordination,” Fiddler said. “They work with the doctors, they work with the nurses and with the patients in the communities.” In the past, K-Net often flew community telehealth workers out to larger communities for training or sent trainers in. Trainers in the communities can provide some training but are not always familiar with the latest tools, he said.

Fiddler said the software will also be used for remote training as part of a community informatics project, and in the fall K-Net will try it out as a training tool for teachers in isolated First Nations communities. The Keewaytinook Internet High School, a K-Net project designed to share educational resources across a number of small communities, may use it as well. Fiddler added that K-Net also hopes to use Breeze in future conferences.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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