Nanaimo Online is perhaps the most advanced municipal Web site in Canada, taking that community one step closer
to a 24-hour city hall.
PROBLEM/SITUATION: City Hall IS planners identified a need to provide better public access to government and community information.
SOLUTION: Civic employees and community members jointly launched "Nanaimo Online," an information service accessible via the Internet.
JURISDICTION: Nanaimo, British Columbia.
USER CONTACT: Per Kristensen, manager, Information Systems, 604/755-4418. Web page:
By George Collicott
Special to Government Technology
In November 1993, a new administration rode to power in the booming Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo on the familiar election promise of open government. Doomsayers, who predicted that the new leadership would fall short of its goal, could be forgiven because they hadn't reckoned on the computer-savvy new mayor, Gary Korpan.
Soon after taking the reins, Korpan made it clear that he would support and participate in the Information Systems (IS) Department's idea to put city information online for the benefit of its 70,000 residents.
IS Department Manager Per Kristensen said that "the idea just kind of took off from there. It was decided that the larger community should be invited to participate and tell us what community information they'd like to make available."
In June 1994, the city launched a call for community volunteers interested in partnering with City Hall to create their own information service. All ideas were welcomed, but there was one important caveat -- there could be no costs attached. The entire project would have to be done with a budget of virtually zero.
The result of this partnership is Nanaimo Online, a registered association with a mandate to provide community information to the public. It is perhaps the most advanced municipal web site in Canada and an interesting model for other cities to contemplate.
"We were initially thinking in terms of a simple bulletin board service, but we quickly realized that the Internet offered far greater potential with no great cost increase," recalled Kristensen. "Luckily, the technology was already available to us."
The Nanaimo School Board was providing its 58 schools with a bulletin board service as well as an Internet connection so that students could do research. The general public was also using the service during non-school hours. Nanaimo Online was able to piggyback on this system, which has since been upgraded from 12 dial-up modems to 36 modems, all of them running at 14,400 baud.
Anyone can access the service via one of Nanaimo's local Internet providers for as little as $1 (Canadian) per hour. It provides e-mail access and a wide range of information not only to its citizens, but to the entire world. During July 1995, for example, the city recorded 2,400 inquiries. At least 30 percent of the hits were international net surfers, including Japanese, Germans and Austrians gathering tourist information.
The remaining inquiries came from locals interested in all types of information related to community activities, city by-laws, plans, departments and directories, and last but not least, meeting schedules, agendas and minutes of the City Council.
"That has been a real hit -- just unbelievable," said Kristensen. "If we don't get the meeting minutes up each week ... we know we're going to get calls from irate citizens demanding to know where they are."
ENVISIONING THE FUTURE
Kristensen envisions a near future when citizens can use the Internet to directly query City Hall regarding such matters as outstanding taxes, user rates for particular services, what their next utility bill will be or when the next garbage pickup will be.
"Once we can do that we eliminate a lot of very routine phone calls,"
he said. "I think that's where the real payback is. We'd like to operate a 24-hour-a-day city hall."
According to Kristensen, one of the biggest problems was finding enough staff to implement and manage the service. For many of the community members who got involved, the new technology itself was a challenge. The thorny issues of privacy and security also had to be dealt with, and the team found it difficult to measure the payback.
Kristensen's conclusions? "It's cost effective. It's a great tool, but it's only a new tool."
"I think municipalities need to take control," said Korpan. "This technology has tremendous untapped potential in terms of easing the availability of information, internally for government staff, and externally for the public.
"The people in our community appreciate having this kind of easy access to their mayor and to their city hall," Korpan continued. "For example, I might get a memo asking if I'm aware of a traffic safety problem at a particular location. Or they'll say, 'did you know that this section of the proposed aquatic protection bylaw has this implication?' And aside from those kinds of technical or detailed things, people will often send in an e-mail asking things like, 'have you guys considered such and such a general policy?'"
Korpan said that kind of feedback has "spurred staff at City Hall to be more up-to-date on things that we've let slip in the past. Bylaws with half a dozen attached amendments are being consolidated and updated."
George Collicott is a Victoria-based freelance science and technology writer.