Sunday, May 22, 2005

WARIS grant application

This week WA Online submitted its WARIS - Western Australian Regional Initiatives Scheme - grant application to assist with the staffing of site administrators within regional Western Australia.

Some of the supporting statememts for the WARIS application are attached.

WARIS Western Australian Regional Initiatives Scheme
The real winners from the uptake of the Internet in regional Australia will be those that maximise the opportunities that e-commerce and the Internet can deliver. The losers will be those communities who passively adopt the technology without harnessing it to assist their communities to grow.

– From “The Internet and Regional Australia: How rural communities can address the impact of the Internet”; Rosie Simpson and Andrew Hunter, a report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation

This closing paragraph to Rosie Simpson and Andrew Hunter’s report epitomises the rationale behind how WA Online came to be.

A veteran of e-commerce and online marketing, WA Online founder Keith Palmer identified a deficiency in the information available online for WA towns and the absence of tools that might redress the drain of social and economic infrastructure in regional areas.

Many years earlier he was the instigator of a Bunbury information and tourism portal that eventually grew into a region-based portal. However, this and other portals, whilst fulfilling community, training and support needs failed to provide substantial or professional-level online tools that might assist a community in the following ways –

1. Provide local information for local people including news, local events, education, local polling and discussion forums. Traditional media is increasingly regionalised, nationalised and internationalised and slowly local communities are losing their voice and their platforms to discuss and be informed about local issues.

2. Provide a pivotal source of information on and for this community. All too often information is either incomplete or fragmented across multiple sources, buried within larger regional or national archives and not marketed correctly or effectively so it can be readily found and accessed via internet search engines.

3. Provide world-class e-commerce modules and tools that genuinely redress the infrastructure and people drain in small and often remote communities. These tools collectively should allow anyone in the world to effectively and widely research the community and its benefits. Further this person should also be able to physically travel to the area, secure accommodation, local transport, meals, purchase products, and if they wish migrate, purchase property retire or set up a business in this area – and it is crucial that all such services be available in a single location. All too often there have been random attempts to provide parts of an overall package but these have been specified by people with little background in e-commerce activity and coded by programmers without the relevant experience or expertise resulting in a “clunky” partial solution to what otherwise was a good idea.

At this stage Mr Palmer began speaking with people in his own local regional community as to what services and facilities they’d like to see in one community internet presence upon which the WA Online catchphrase – “Building information bridges for Western Australian communities” was coined.

The concept of an information bridge metaphor to describe the WA Online Project came from the real bridge that such a service would provide between a local community, no matter how isolated, and the rest of the world.

… and an information bridge, like a traditional bridge would have 2 sides.

On one side of the bridge there is entry for local people wishing to communicate within their community and be continually informed and updated with issues and local information and resources that affect their daily lives. The other side of the bridge allows simple and efficient access, by those elsewhere in Australia (or the world), to the particular town.

Whilst designing a framework to deliver on this promise Mr Palmer began a search both in Australia and internationally for the programming talent required to deliver a world-class package of online information and e-commerce tools and resources.

Eventually Mr Palmer selected a small programming and design team based in regional NSW and paid for a mini-site to be be coded and launched. Bunbury Online was born in October 2004 as primarily a demonstration site for elements of the online resources and tools that would be developed by the middle of 2005 and would be launched in Busselton Online.

After the launch of Bunbury Online, Mr Palmer sought local WA investors to assist in funding the coding and launch of Busselton Online and then 25 other initial sites across Western Australia and a further 2 sites in the Northern Territory. This funding also allowed for a 25% equity purchase in all the Intellectual Property involved in the coding of these sites, a 49% purchase of the sales and deployment of similar sites across the rest of Australia and possibly internationally, plus an 8% stake in a national travel agent business that would be used to partner and provide tourist-related call centres and services Australia-wide.

Currently there is a team of around 20 people working on rolling out Busselton Online and the subsequent other WA Online sites, several of whom work full-time in building search engine marketing technologies with the aim of WA Online sites dominating all internet searches affecting terms associated with WA towns.

In planning in partnership for a sustainable future, WA Online facilitates communities to achieve improved economic development by providing state of the art web services. Local communities can now be more “visible” in the virtual world.

The introduction of e-commerce facilities allows small business to access the best services at the least cost. People wishing to relocate can get more information from WA Online than anywhere else. Members of the local community can update information without having to engage the services of others.

The many components that make up a WA Online site have been identified and included as a result of a feedback process. Once deployed, this process begins over, in that modules are perpetually modified and redeveloped based on need and feedback. At this stage new information and e-commerce modules and tools will be developed as a result of local community feedback. Additionally each site is built to promote and discuss regional issues and opportunities and will be administered by a local person within the community. This person will effectively become the local “journalist” providing a real interface between the technology WA Online deploys and the local people and their community.

The Town Online website provides a regional community (including Indigenous communities) with a tangible means to plan and manage their futures.

In helping to develop skilled communities, WA Online allows local communities to be actively involved in portraying all aspects of their community. Additionally, the purpose of this application is to enable local community members to be employed and trained to assist and support local communities in taking full advantage of the various modules of each site. Directly then, WA Online will contribute to the skill level of the local community.

For example the local website will provide, in addition to modules designed to increase the economic wealth of the community, such items as polling of local issues, local news feeds, an updated calendar of events, photo gallery and other pertinent local information with the aim of improving access to, and particaption in, arts and cultural activities, physical activity, sporting activities and recreational events. The activities and issues of each town will not be hidden amongst those of the wider region or ignored in an increasingly regionalised, nationalised or internationalised traditional media, but will be continually updated and maintained by people living within this community.

The websites will also bring together the various medical services and resources available in a particular area so that local people can choose the appropriate service to contact rather than being bounced around a range of offices or services. These pages would show photos of the various staff so that potential users of these services would recognise a person on attending the service in person. (This request came from an Aboriginal community with the aim to break down some of the barriers that occur for Aboriginal users of the medical system.)

Beyond the initial rollout towns WA Online hopes to deploy equivalent sites to smaller towns on a contract basis. Typically this would be done with a business or community group who would be assisted with access to business guidance and training, whether they be a start-up or established business.

In improving regional infrastructure, WA Online facilitates the development of the virtual infrastructure of the state. Local people can easily locate information directly relevant to their daily lives and are able to share with and showcase to a worldwide audience the positive aspects of their lives and community.

WA Online allows even small and medium sized businesses to access world’s-best in internet search technologies as well as a raft of online e-commerce tools and modules that would normally be out of a community or individual business or organisation’s reach.

In assisting in diversifying regional economies, WA Online provides a bevy of online tools aimed solely at bringing incremental revenue to both an individual business and community, no matter how remote or isolated they might be. The project enables the effective global marketing of tourism potential, property and other economic or social benefits of the area. The WA Online project empowers niche markets (for example a wine produced from grapes grown in a “desert” region) and every single community group will be able to have a significant web presence, with the ability to continually grow, update and inform, at little or no cost.
Such groups as schools, sports clubs, arts organisations, volunteer groups can all be “visible” and found in one place.

In the draft State Communications Policy: “WA – A Connected Community”, we see that “the ability of individuals and organisations to access, process and communicate information is essential for economic growth, business activity and job creation.

The communications network is a critical factor in providing access to resources, markets and trade opportunities, including the rapidly developing opportunities of electronic commerce. It also represents a significant competitive advantage that affects the capacity of existing businesses to grow and the ability of the State to attract new industries, businesses and professionals as the traditional barriers of geographic distance and low-density population are significantly reduced or eliminated.

In this regard, access to advanced communications services, facilities and infrastructure is as important to the ongoing development of Western Australia as other infrastructure requirements, such as water, electricity, gas, roads, rail and ports.”

As mentioned elsewhere in this document, many of the design features included are mindful or are at the request of the Aboriginal community and their culture. A completely separate project is to build Aboriginal owned and run e-commerce stores, promoting ethical purchases of Aboriginal products (especially art) which provide training and jobs for local artists, administrators and other workers in the e-commerce business and 100% of revenue being returned to the Aboriginal community.

In enhancing regional investment, WA Online will encourage local purchasing. By providing extensive information about moving a business to each community or retiring or moving to this community will also directly encourage investment. Individual communities can promote themselves as attractive places to live and work as well as showcasing the range of recreational and social opportunities available.

WA Online also assists in ensuring fair pricing for regional residents and businesses in that the internet helps break down these barriers, and WA Online is committed to supporting regional Australia because we live here. In that local businesses will now be able to cheaply market their product on the internet and be present in one, easy-to-find location will also assist local people in shopping locally. Additionally we also include information such as Fuel Watch on our websites.

WA Online helps to address the issue of life long learning at a local level. All educational services will be profiled on each web site, as well as services such as libraries, education services and other resources.

The WA Online Projects directly assists in enhancing the quality of regional lifestyles with every local organization being profiled on the local website. Additionally each group would have a mini-site set up so they can freely and continuously build and update their information, advertise their functions and communicate with the local community.

The Project also aids in effective health service delivery in locating all services and resources in one central, easy to locate online repository. This project removes the need to search by phone, over the internet or in person for information on such services.

Further, the draft State Communications Policy: “WA – A Connected Community” highlights the desire that all West Australians should have access to affordable, functional, reliable and secure communications infrastructure and services regardless of location, income or disability and increasing the use of communications technology to deliver government services more effectively to individuals, business and the community.

Indeed the policy document’s vision statement reads –
Western Australians will have access to functional and affordable communications services, allowing them to fully participate in the opportunities available.

In summary, the local WA Online information and e-commerce websites can be a major factor in providing the “glue” in providing a cohesive local community.

The findings of the Kimberley Development Commission Annual Report 30 June 2004: Regional Development Activities 2003/2004 – Better Planning: Better Services, provide further substantiation of the need of a project such as that being pursued by WA Online as does Gail Short’s report on The Western Australia Telecentre Network.

Studies or projects that further demonstrate the priority of this project are –

Project Code Project Name Proponent Description
WA1997/12 Esperance Community College Project Esperance Community College Steering Committee (Inc.) A Wide Area Network was built and a Point of Presence established that enabled the flexible delivery of education and training and Internet access as a part of a larger Esperance Community College project for Esperance, Ravensthorpe, and Dundas (Norseman) Shires.
WA1997/26 Electronic Commerce in the Peel Region Peel Development Commisssion The project provided for the development of the Peel eMarketplace and Peel eCommunity web sites to form the foundation for a single point of contact for online services and information for the region, including an education and awareness raising program.
WA1998/32 TeleYOUTH WA Department of Local Government and Regional Development The project used telecommunications to meet identified needs of rural youth and helped overcome remoteness in four Telecentres - Denmark, Walpole, Augusta and Katanning.
WA1998/35 Business Incubator for Wheatbelt Western Australia Wheatbelt Area Consultative Committee Establish a business incubator for the Wheatbelt area.
WA1998/36 TeleSENIOR WA Department Local Government and Regional Development Introduce seniors and retired people living in rural and remote locations to new opportunities available through the use of the Internet and email, through Telecentres at Greenbushes, Nannup, Narembeen, Ravensthorpe, Darkan, York and Wongan Hills.
WA1999/77 Telecentre Access Points WA Department of Local Government and Regional Development Provide stand alone Internet connected coin operated units to some 75 communities of less than 200 people, hitherto unserved by the West Australian Telecentres Network, to improve access to online transactions, information and services, and education and training.
WA2000/132 Community Access to the Information Age Western Australian Municipal Association To provide public access to the Internet, online services and information in selected regional libraries.
WA2000/134 Goldfields-Esperance Regional Internet/E-commerce Portal (WA) Kalgoorlie-Boulder Chamber of Commerce & Industry Inc. To create an electronic portal/interactive community website for the Goldfields-Esperance Region of South-East Western Australia.
WA2000/138 Linking Councils and Communities Western Australian Local Government Association To enhance and enable delivery of online local government and associated community services.
WA2000/97 Wired Wide West Project (for Mid West WA) Mid West Development Commission To establish an interactive and viable community e-commerce portal/website for the Mid West Region of Western Australia, including a Business and Marketing Plan and associated training in the use of online services.
WA2001/145 Albany GateWAy: E-GateWAy The next phase Albany GateWAy Cooperative Ltd To provide an online presence and e-commerce for the Albany GateWAy including training and associated assistance for the community and businesses in the Great Southern Region.
WA2001/146 Denmark Telecentre Training Project Denmark Telecentre Inc To provide training for IT and Internet support services for the Shire of Denmark located in the Great Southern region.
WA2001/150 mysouthweSt internet portal The Bunbury Chamber of Commerce & Industries Inc To build the 'mysouthwest' portal with e-commerce functions, and including training and assistance for business and the community.

WARIS Western Australian Regional Initiatives Scheme