Rugged geography. Sparse population. An economy in transition. Tight government budgets. No, it's not the Great Plains states, but rather four Canadian provinces on the Atlantic coastline. For years, the Maritime governments of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have struggled to keep their communities alive in the wake of the collapsing fishing industry.

As they govern a relatively small population scattered across thousands of miles of islands and inlets, the Atlantic provinces have had their hands full helping people and businesses prosper as they shift from the old economy of fishing to the New Economy of bits and bytes. Not surprisingly, keeping up with the rapidly advancing, digital world of electronic government hasn't been easy.

But since November 1997, e-business has been mouse-clicking away in this remote region. And it's not just flourishing within one province, but across all four, thanks to a unique partnership with the private sector. The initiative, known as Atlantic Canada On-Line (ACOL), is a regional service that allows business customers to perform a number of government transactions electronically, involving personal property records, vehicle information, driver abstracts, business registries, filings for court documents and more.

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"The government was extremely interested in the partnership because the private sector would invest the capital."

-- Clyde Horner, Province of Nova Scotia's liaison to ACOL.

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The entire upfront cost for developing, implementing, managing and marketing ACOL has been borne by a consortium of companies, led by Unisys Corp., which splits revenues generated by the new services with the provinces. That arrangement was a major selling point, according to Clyde Horner, Nova Scotia's government liaison to ACOL. "The government was extremely interested in the partnership because the private sector would invest the capital," he said. "It was a great idea, because the private sector had the resources to invest in building this infrastructure."

New Services

Unisys' $10 million investment in ACOL has produced an array of electronic services for the region's business community that are enviable not just for their online accessibility, but for the workflow, back-end management tools and customer support behind each application. First to go online was Nova Scotia's Personal Property Registry (PPR), a centralized computer service that allows organizations and individuals to record their financial interests in personal property, such as cars and boats.

Today, all four provinces are running PPR so that businesses can electronically register a piece of collateral on a loan. Users can access PPR through PCs and dial-up lines or over the Internet using a Web browser. Security, through user IDs and passwords, ensures safe transactions.

Typical of users is the law firm McInnes Cooper, which has offices in all four provinces. The firm uses the service as much as four to five hours daily to conduct searches and to register personal property for loan requests. "The system is a lot easier search-wise than the paper-based system," said Cathy Watts, a corporate clerk with McInnes Cooper. "Nova Scotia had 26 registry locations, which meant we had to hire outside searchers to help us. Now all the work is done from our office. It's a big timesaver."

E-Financial Wheels

To help both the firms that subscribe to the service and the governments that offer them, ACOL has a highly functional bill and financial-services component known as the Business Office. It's an aspect of electronic commerce that other applications often overlook, said Gary Kelly, Unisys' ACOL business manager. "We manage the money for transactions from multiple databases," he said. "It's what makes the back-office component superior to others."

The system's fee collection and disbursement services are a key aspect of this back-end operation. All financial activity, such as charges for searches and fees for transactions, are captured and recorded in an Oracle database. Clients can review and

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor