Ontario county launches smart community portal

Windsor-Essex County in southwestern Ontario has joined a growing number of Canadian municipalities that are building complex Web portals to manage content and increase online collaboration within their communities.

Connecting Windsor-Essex

was officially launched this week, offering online opinion polls, suggestion boxes and discussion areas. The portal will also offer a secure professional planning calendar that will allow community organizations and agencies to plan events around one another so that two charities don’t hold fundraisers on the same night, for example.

“”We knew we wanted to not just have static information come out but also collaboration tools for our community,”” said Kristina Verner, a project officer with the Windsor Essex Development Network (WEDnet), who led the portal’s development. “”We have a lot of smaller, not-for-profits that really can’t afford software and infrastructure. This will provide them an opportunity to collaborate very effectively.””

The portal was developed using Cityscape Portal Solution – City Edition, which IBM developed with its Websphere Portal and Lotus Collaboration products such as Lotus Instant Messaging and Lotus Team Workplace. Francis Loughheed, a subject matter expert in municipal and portal initiatives at IBM Canada, said Windsor-Essex became more interested in using its tools after seeing a prototype for a similar portal developed for the municipality of Cornwall, Ont.

Loughheed said Windsor-Essex is one of the first communities in the world to build its portal on Websphere.

“”One of the things we’re looking at is the ability to leverage content, context and contact,”” he said. “”I can see battles of the bands of MP3s being put up by local garage rock groups. I’m just waiting for the local singles group to go online and do online matching.””

Verner said Windsor-Essex developed the architecture for the portal in a distributed environment with installations at both the city, the county and the R&D centre at the University of Windsor, where she works as an R&D officer. The portal is also hosted on separate segments of the network so that if a power outage or some other problem occurs, the portal won’t go down.

Key to the portal is a Community Connector feature that will allow non-profit organizations to manage volunteers online, or board of directors to have confidential areas with meeting notes and agendas. Although many other areas of the site do not require authentication, users will have to register to use Community Connector, which Verner said is already compliant with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

Loughheed said the Websphere tools could allow other communities to develop smart portals relatively inexpensively.

“”More sophisticated users of Internet and portal technology are demanding that local groups, particularly municipalities, have and provide the most sophisticated kinds of online experiences that they can,”” he said. “”That becomes a real problem for small municipalities that can’t afford it.””

Ongoing technical responsibilities for the portals have been assumed by the various organizations that are actually hosting infrastructure, Verner said, while responsibility for posting content is being assigned to experts within the relevant areas. IBM is also assisting with training activities through the Windsor-Essex Public Library.

“”It’s a little bit more of an intensive application than what people may be accustomed to,”” said Verner. “”We really do need to make sure they’re aware of the ins and outs of it.””

Verner said she is also working with umbrella organizations of businesses and non-profit organizations to get the word out about the portal more quickly and attract traffic to the site.

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