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220 Thompson


Policy Vision
With the proliferation of information and Web sites, it becomes increasingly difficult to
find relevant information via the Internet. Web portals have developed to facilitate the
location of online information. Examples include: community portals, geographical or
interest-based; business portals, internally or externally focused; and government
portals, for particular groups such as businesses, young people, women or regional
communities. In most cases, the objectives include providing efficient access to
information, resources and services, reaching a larger audience, and providing “anytime,
anywhere” service, 24 hours a day, seven days a week (Hunter, 1999; Thompson, 1999;
Gill, 2000; McGrath and More, 2002; Telstra Country Wide, 2002).
In Australia, there has been a vision for online services to be used to open up regional
communities to the rest of the world. Government support has been seen “as enhancing
the competence levels of local economies and communities so they become strong
enough to deal equitably in an increasingly open marketplace” (McGrath and More, 2002,
p.40). Two Federal Government programs managed by the National Office for the
Information Economy (NOIE) provide examples of the support which has been available.
The Information Technology Online (ITOL) program aims to accelerate Australian
adoption of business-to-business e-commerce and encourage collaborative industry-
based projects (McGrath and More, 2002). The complementary, five-year $464 million
program, Networking the Nation (NTN), was designed to help bridge the gap in the level
of telecommunications services, access, and costs between urban and non-urban
Australia. Both programs have provided a funding source for initiatives, variously
termed as portals, online communities, comprehensive gateways and regional Web sites
(Department Communications Information Technology and the Arts, 2001). Funding
priority has been given to projects that offer regional aggregation of business, govern-
ment and community services and provide interactive services to clients both within and
external to a region (Commonwealth of Australia, 2001).
While no formal evaluation of the NTN program has been published, a recent evaluation
of the ITOL program explores the notion of online communities and reports on portal
projects funded through that program. Findings indicate that most ITOL-funded projects
are not fully meeting original objectives. Unforeseen challenges during the course of
project implementation have included: technological problems, delays in legal agree-
ments, slowness of industry and/or project beneficiaries to respond to the e-commerce
initiative, and an underestimation of the time and effort required. For most, the plan to
provide full online e-commerce capabilities (for example, online ordering and payments)
will not be achieved (McGrath and More, 2002).
McGrath and More (2002, p.67) observe that these potential online communities are
“evolving rather than having arrived.” Further, despite the rise of interest in online
communities, these alliances are not “magic bullets or quick-fix solutions for SMEs or
even larger organisations, communities, or industries.” They however observe that
“where commitment, compatibility, [and] shared strategic intent are at the heart of
collaborative relationships, success and learning is much more likely to occur” (McGrath
and More, 2002, p.68).




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Online Services and Regional Web Portals 221


Centre for Electronic Commerce and
Communications
The University of Ballarat (UoB) is a distinctive, dual-sector regional institution pre-
eminently serving the Australian communities of the Central Highlands and Wimmera
regions of Victoria. The UoB vision is to be a regional university of international
standing, highly regarded by the communities it serves. UoB provides clear educational
pathways between TAFE and Higher Education and offers a broad range of courses to
meet the diverse educational and training needs of the region. The University also has
a growing national and international focus. A key objective of the University is to
provide leadership for the uptake of ICT in industries, local government and within and
among regional groups. Through its activities UoB also seeks to contribute to the
educational, social, economic and cultural well-being of the region.
The Centre for Electronic Commerce and Communications (CECC) contributes to these
objectives by promoting the advancement of e-commerce, particularly in its practical
application in regional and rural Australia. Since being established in 1998 CECC has built
extensive partnerships and strategic alliances within and beyond the University region
and developed and implemented a range of projects utilising information communication
technologies. Different education and training strategies have been used by CECC to
foster learning and to build social capital through ICT and e-commerce.
Through the implementation of a $409,000 NTN-funded regional portal project
(www.mainstreet.net.au) during the period from 1999 to 2001, CECC gained an enhanced
understanding of regional ICT needs. CECC also established significant capabilities in
developing, replicating and customising online services capable of meeting the specific
needs of regional communities, groups and organisations. Diverse groups and commu-
nities now access online services through CECC. These include local governments,
town-based communities, membership-based organisations, industry groups and small
and medium enterprises. In almost all cases the Web sites, online communities and/or
Web portals are meeting or exceeding the initial client objectives. Clients have strong
ownership of their online activities, maintain their own web-based information and are
committed to investing annually to maintain the shared infrastructure and services they
access. The first of two case studies is presented. These case studies help in analysing
the complex and dynamic relationship between technological innovations and changing
social relations.




Ararat Online
Over the past two decades Ararat and district, like many Australian regions, has been
subjected to the consequences of economic rationalisation and restructuring. Popula-
tion has reduced from 8,336 in 1981 to 7,052 as of the last census of population in 2001
(Department of Infrastructure Research Unit, 1999; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003).



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permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.
222 Thompson


Declining commodity prices, changing farm practices, reducing family size and changes
in government policy have variously impacted on the Ararat region. Since 1990, the
closures of the Aradale Psychiatric Hospital and the regional rail yards have created a
direct loss of more than 700 jobs. Following the withdrawal of these two key employers,
the Ararat region experienced rapid decline with multiple impacts including: closure of
support industries, falling school enrolments, the loss of skilled workers, the withdrawal
of State and Commonwealth Government offices and services, and declining housing
prices (Surridge, 2000).
Ararat Rural City came into existence in 1996 as a result of the amalgamation of the Shire
of Ararat (rural area) and the Ararat City Council (city area). Prior to amalgamation “there
was a sense of belonging to either a rural municipality or a city municipality.” A “them
and us mentality” was apparent (Nicholson and Surridge, 2002, p.10). Since amalgam-
ation, this strong competitive environment has largely continued with residents from
outlying areas wary of city-centric decisions and resource allocations. Addressing this
perception has been a priority for the region. Increasing the uptake of ICT and e-
commerce has been another significant priority.
The Ararat Municipal E-Commerce Strategy was first presented at the Ararat Council
Management Group meeting in March of 2000 (Surridge, 2000). This report outlined how
the Ararat Rural City was seeking to facilitate an increase in the uptake of ICT and e-
commerce across the range of business and service organisations operating in Ararat and
district. Council™s activities were premised on a belief that the competitiveness of the
municipality would be enhanced by the earliest possible adoption of ICT and e-commerce
because it was “no longer a question of whether or not to start using the powerful
technology of the Internet. It was more a question of how” (Surridge, 2000, p.1). The
E-Commerce Strategy identified that a “bottom-up approach” would be adopted to
empower local businesses and individuals by providing them with opportunities to
become more ICT literate and to generate awareness and familiarisation with available
technologies.
In 2000, Ararat Rural City partnered with the University of Ballarat to redevelop Ararat
Online (www.ararat.asn.au). Ararat Online (Stage 1) had evolved from a partnership
between Ararat Rural City and the Ararat Community College. Students had in early 1999
developed simple web pages for local businesses and community groups. But there were
some limitations. There was a lack of site consistency, no searching capabilities, some
quality problems, and an inability to easily update sites.
The project to upgrade Ararat Online included a range of elements. The site structure and
design was completely revamped and new toolsets were incorporated. These included
news building tools, a community events calendar, a searchable business directory,
online registration and payment system and a community discussion forum. Comprehen-
sive training was provided to the local project team so that future workshops, content
development, and the ongoing maintenance of Ararat Online could be managed locally.
More than 80 business and community groups directly benefited from an upgrade of their
web presence. Each organisation was provided with the opportunity to undertake
training to gain the skills to manage their own site.
Victoria™s Minister for Regional Development, John Brumby, officially relaunched Ararat
Online on August 4, 2000. The Ararat Online Web site was identified as “a first in Victoria



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permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.
Online Services and Regional Web Portals 223


because it uses unique ASP software providing easy and affordable community owner-
ship, access and input” (Wimmera Mail Times, 2000). Businesses and organisations
could therefore manage and update their Web sites from their business or home PCs
without the need for third-party expert involvement or additional costs to business.
The new site generated immediate benefits through the efficient linking of Internet-based
information and services. The region could now more effectively promote local busi-
nesses, tourism and regional events. The project also generated significant learning
opportunities for community members.
Reflecting on the project, the City™s Economic Development Manager identified that the
quality of the outcomes could not have been achieved without access to the project
management, web development, and training services provided by the University of
Ballarat. The project had enabled the community to access tools, technical services and
resources that were not previously available. The resultant functionality exceeded
original expectations. Three other areas of benefit were: reductions in recurrent operating
costs, enhancements in terms of accuracy of information and the achievement of
increased community participation.
The Ararat Online project has provided the catalyst for a range of complementary
projects. These have included:
1. E-commerce mentoring project for six businesses (2000).
2. Establishment of web services to promote Ararat Tourism (Late 2000).
3. Establishment of a Web site for the Rural City of Ararat (July 2001 version 1 and
March 2003 version 2).
4. Launch of web-based services to support the annual regional business awards
(2001 and ongoing).
5. Internet access point established in six small communities (Late 2001).
6. Development of web-based infrastructure to record and house information on the
skills of residents and groups in Ararat™s surrounding towns (2002 and ongoing).
7. A project which surveyed 500 businesses in conjunction with Council™s property
valuation process (2002 and ongoing).
8. A project to develop and launch township Web sites for six small towns in the
region (2002).
9. Further upgrades to Ararat Online with enhanced functionality, opportunities for
interaction and information sharing (2002 and 2003).
10. Appointment of staff with specific responsibilities for supporting further develop-
ment of Ararat Online and associated community-building activities (2003).


While many similar-sized towns and regions have yet to start their journey, the Ararat
region has progressively advanced its uptake of electronic commerce and improved its
online service delivery with Ararat Online, a critical component of the region™s efforts.
Ararat Online has been recognised as an exemplar online community, which demon-
strates how regional development approaches and online technologies can come
together. According to the SkillsNet Association (SkillsNet Association Co-operative



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permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.
224 Thompson


Figure 1. Ararat Online, September 2003




Limited, 2001, p.9), there are only a limited number of landmark implementations in e-
commerce which have been encouraged by local government. “The Ararat Online
Project, a community and business partnership project, with an online portal for the whole
of the Ararat community, and one which includes a mentoring component” is one of
these.
The Ararat Online case study acts as a powerful mechanism for promoting online service
adoption. This is particularly effective when the Ararat Online “story” is linked with a
series of visual images (predominately screen grabs) gathered at regular intervals
between 1999 to the present. The presentation of this type of information helps
community groups and other regional organisations identify the “big picture” that they
can work toward.
The progressive adoption and expansion of online services in Ararat has been achieved
through a staged approach with regular local government investment to enhance the ICT
infrastructure and a continuing effort and commitment from individuals in the community
and in local government to renew, sustain and enhance the information accessible
through Ararat Online. The business directory has, for example, recently been redevel-
oped with the number of participating businesses expanded from approximately 100 to
500. The most recent redevelopment of Ararat Online (launched May 2003) has more
closely aligned its services with the wider business and community building efforts in
the region.



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permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.
Online Services and Regional Web Portals 225


Figure 2. Site statistics, Ararat Online, June 2002-August 2003


14000


12000


10000
Monthly Total




8000


6000


4000


2000


0
Jun Jul Aug S ep Oct Nov Dec Jan F eb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug

Period June 2002 - August 2003

Visits Pages




Site statistics provide one measure of utilisation. From June 2002 to August 2003 the site
received 24,805 visits, provided users with 125,394 pages of information and recorded a
total of 325,970 hits. Figure 2 illustrates utilisation on a monthly basis. Usage peaked
in the lead up to the Christmas holiday period. While site visits have been relatively
steady, there has been a reduction in utilisation of the site in recent months, as measured
by page views. This may indicate that a review of the site content and services should
be conducted to ensure that these continue to meet the needs of online visitors.
The Ararat Online case illustrates benefits in terms of expanded local capabilities and
confidence, the fostering of business innovation, the provision of new education and
training opportunities and the establishment of improved communications services. For
the University of Ballarat, the partnership with Ararat Rural City has provided many
opportunities to develop and pilot services which promote the advancement of e-
commerce. This has assisted the University in developing a replicable portal framework
and a suite of scaleable and customisable applications, which are used to establish
geographical portals and other forms of online services to meet the needs of SMEs,
regional groups, local government and other regional initiatives.
The learning achieved through the Ararat Online project is being very effectively
transferred to other Australian communities as the University of Ballarat continues to
work with geographic and interest-based communities to identify their online service
needs and then to customise, develop and deliver relevant functionality and locally



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permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.
226 Thompson


appropriate web services (See Appendix 1 for web addresses). The case of the Young
Australian Rural Network is presented in the following section. This case demonstrates
how online services can be established to leverage the activities of a community of
interest.




Young Australian Rural Network
The Young Australian Rural Network (YARN) (www.yarn.gov.au) is an initiative of the
Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry “ Australia (AFFA).
YARN is an interactive online community, “a vehicle” for young people working in rural
industries “to communicate directly with AFFA and with each other” and to “keep in
touch, collaborate, share ideas and strengthen networks” (Downie [AFFA], 2002). The
University of Ballarat was invited to submit a proposal for the development of YARN in
June 2002 after AFFA identified the University™s involvement in projects including
Ararat Online, the MainStreet Regional Portal project (www.mainstreet.net.au) and
Moorabool Online (www.mconline.com.au).
The establishment of YARN was supported by research undertaken during 2001 which
sought to better inform AFFA about young people 18-35 years who represented one-
third of all people working in rural industries. The research outcomes were subsequently
communicated through a publication entitled, Guidelines for Reaching our Clients “
Young People, which was launched in May 2002 (Department of Agriculture Fisheries
& Forestry Australia, 2002). This guide was designed to help AFFA staff members
recognise opportunities to include young people in their work. In introducing the guide,
Michael Taylor, the Department Secretary, highlighted the importance of including
young people in AFFA™s decision-making:


Our research tells us that this significant group is impatient with prevailing
timeframes for government and industry policy development; is not enthusias-
tic about agro-political structures and decision-making; communicates dif-
ferently; is more likely to be positive about the future of agriculture and their
own future than their older peers; and, importantly, wants to roll up its
collective sleeves and get the job done¦This client group must be effectively
engaged in our work because not only have they inherited our current
agriculture, fisheries and forestry environments and the well-being of rural
communities, they determine the immediate future of rural and regional
Australia (Department of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry Australia, 2002, p.2).


The research conducted for AFFA confirmed that the Internet represented a powerful
communication channel for reaching young people. Of the 350 young people surveyed,
67 percent had access to the Internet with 50 percent using it at least weekly. Email was
the preferred medium for communicating, but Web sites were identified as a more useful
way of accessing information, “particularly for keeping up with industry information”



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Online Services and Regional Web Portals 227


(Department of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry Australia, 2002). The extensive use of
links to other relevant sites would be most likely to draw young people back to a site but
“out-of-date Web sites were unlikely to get a second chance.” In terms of designing
Internet communications, the need for interactivity was confirmed. There was also the
continuing requirement to be mindful of slow download times in some areas (Department
of Agriculture Fisheries & Forestry Australia, 2002, p.15).
In June 2002 AFFA recruited a person who would have the primary responsibility of
researching and overseeing the establishment and ongoing development of an online
community where “ownership” would be shared between AFFA and young people in
rural industries. The project objectives for the Young Australian Rural Network project
(YARN) would include:
1. Promoting and supporting further networking amongst graduates of the various
Young People in Rural Industries programs coordinated by AFFA.
2. Providing a two-way communication tool as a conduit for information flow between
AFFA and its stakeholders, with communication ideally being equally initiated at
both ends.
3. Serving as an information “hub” for young people in rural industries to find further
information on non-government organisations, networks and groups, particularly
by providing a facility for non-government youth networks to post information
about their organisation on the site.
4. Serving also as a general dissemination tool for the Young People in Rural
Industries program (YPIRI program), in conjunction with the existing AFFA Web
site (www.affa.gov.au).


While the intention was for AFFA to establish and maintain the site, graduates from
various elements of the YPIRI program would determine the content, and as far as
possible, the structure and facilities. AFFA clearly understood that functionality could
be created (discussion forums, event calendars, web page building facilities, member
listings, etc.) but that an online community would not exist unless its members were
actively involved and interacting with each other.
The framework for the online community would be developed by University of Ballarat.
It was proposed that the core functionality would include six key elements as detailed
in Table 1.
A key objective was to actively engage graduates of the YPIRI program in the initial and
ongoing development of YARN. Approximately 100 YPIRI graduates were contacted via
email on July 7, 2002 and asked to contribute to an online survey that would gather their
opinions on the features of an online community that they would find most useful. The
results would inform the development of YARN, confirm whether AFFA™s vision was
appropriate and also test the level of responsiveness and interest which was generated
from graduates. Three music gift voucher prizes were offered as an incentive to
encourage participation. One email reminder was sent during the two-week collection
period. Results were collated, prize winners were announced and detailed feedback
provided to all graduates on 25 July 2002. Table 2 summarises the responses which were



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