Mar 19,2005 - Tri City News
By Diane StrandbergThe Tri-City News
Mar 19 2005
"At the end of three years, the community will have not only a gathering place for information and cultural exchanges but, also, a gateway to community services and tools that are focused on the need of the citizen...
"The process of building the community portal involves an unprecedented level of participation from all community residents, business and community organizations. They all will have the opportunity to use state-of-the-art web tools to enable content to be easily contributed to the community portal..."
- Smart Choices, January '02
When the cities Port Moody and Coquitlam were promised $4.5 million to get their citizens communicating and buying from one another through their computers, the internet was still a new and uncharted world to municipal officials.
Governments were eager to dish out money to make sure they didn't get left behind in the e-revolution and technology companies were looking for places to display their wares. It seemed like a good idea at the time to get involved.
"My guess is that when the federal government knocked on the door with millions of dollars, local councils grabbed at it," said Gerry Nuttall, a PoMo councillor who has tracked the mostly-taxpayer financed Smart Choices project on his website. "They had a great vision of what the portal could do for the community and I believe they thought businesses would come running to their door and the fees charged to those businesses would pay for the operation."
Much has changed in five years.
People are more familiar with the internet, its strengths and its limitations. Just about every government, business and organization has a web presence, and buying and selling has been made easy with secure sites and eBay. The dot.com boom has come and gone, taking technology companies with it. And an upstart called Google made it easy to find anything quickly.
Is there still room for a local web portal called citysoup.ca to connect people with schools, local government, businesses and sports and cultural groups?
The answer appears to be a qualified Yes. But not without core funding, people who are committed to keeping it going, better organization, more links to useful sites and a marketing campaign to make it more visible to residents.
"People do like to have an online version of their physical world," said Richard Smith, a professor in SFU's department of communication. While people can still get local information through Google, citysoup.ca has the potential of offering more depth, said Smith. For example, a search for Coquitlam auto-detailing businesses through Google turns up an easy-to-read map and several regional listings but none in Coquitlam or Port Moody. A search on citysoup.ca turned up eight. Of citysoup.ca, Smith said: "I was surprised at how current and usable it was."
Although citysoup.ca has the potential of being helpful for sourcing local content, paying city bills and signing up for recreation programs, it still needs work. It's arguably the least understood component of a $13-million experiment in making the internet accessible.
For $9 million, taxpayers leveraged another $4 million from the private sector to build a "content management system" that was supposed to be a one-stop information and shopping centre. They also got free internet training, computers with free access to the internet, help with designing websites, a smartly-decorated business centre with a business library and office services for small businesses, and a web broadcast studio.
Citysoup.ca is the centerpiece of the internet communications project that began five years ago with federal funding, supplemented with city cash, staff time and help from technology companies. On the site, you can read about local restaurants and link to local theatres and movie reviews. You can find out about businesses and groups on a 255-name directory, get access to 100 websites hosted on citysoup.ca. Weather and gas prices and community news are updated daily, giving it a friendly face.
But there are gaps. There are no direct links to health and community institutions for people needing quick access to help. A mom with a troubled teen suffering from psychosis would not, for example, be linked to the Fraser Health Authority website or be provided with a phone number for the local mental health office or a supportive parent group. There are lots of articles - essentially, press releases - on various topics but many of them are a year or more old. Links to post-secondary institutions, such as Douglas College are also missing.
The e-commerce tools that were promised for buying and selling local products are still not functioning. Online bill payment for city services, hailed as a technological marvel by city and Smart Choices officials, is common on city websites throughout the Lower Mainland. The crime map tool is not accessible to people using the Macintosh operating system, not a fatal flaw, but a nuisance.
The site is also slow, noted Josh Paul, who publishes Performance PC magazine and owns NeoCode Software, which builds content management systems similar to that used by citysoup.ca.
"It's not easy to navigate," he said. "There's way too much going on." According to Paul, citysoup.ca is a garden-variety content management system -and not a very good one. "I'm just disappointed that useful resources that could have been put to good use... kids are hungry, schools are not ready for earthquakes... because money has gone to things like this."
Smith agrees web technology may have caught up with citysoup.ca but he says the web portal is still unique for bringing government, business and the community together. There are city web sites and free community sites, such as the Vancouver Community Network (vcn.bc.ca) which operates on a shoestring, but citysoup.ca tries to link them all.
Smith said he has seen far more taxpayer money go to internet projects that were stale-dated almost the moment they were completed.
What's important, says Smith is that people use the site and make it their own. But that won't happen without a "critical mass" of easy-to-get information and core funding from the cities to keep it up-to-date. "Online community takes a while," he said. "It's like moving into a new neighbourhood... Is it a viable community? It's too early to tell."
The Tri-City News contacted a few businesses and community groups that have a presence on citysoup.ca and all said they found it helpful even though it cost them money to build the template and have it hosted. There's a set-up fee of $75 and monthly charges of between $8.75 and $41.56.
Still, not everyone's up and running. The Runner's Den, a PoMo business recently profiled on the site, has its own website and the owners said they never used citysoup.ca. PoMo Coun. Gerry Nuttall opted out of the site and had his business' site designed by someone else because his target market is outside the city and it was cheaper. Burke Mountain Naturalists didn't join because of cost.
But getting people and groups to buy in is critical to making the site sustainable as a business. Content is also key and that takes time, good community connections, cash and passion for ensuring the site is as inclusive as possible.
Smart Choices officials say the site got more than 20 million hits last year, making it a remarkable hub for people seeking information.
But it's unknown whether the visitors got what they were seeking or if they ever returned.