A New Chapter

Back in September of 1994, I placed a call to the Prince Edward Island Department of Economic Development and Tourism. I was running the Island’s first website, for the PEI Crafts Council, and we were getting requests for tourism information from [the still relatively few] Internet users around the world. Not a flood of requests, but a good steady trickle. I figured if I could get the PEI Visitors Guide on disk, I could place sections of it online, stanch the requests, and help to promote tourism in my new province.

The Department happily handed over a floppy disk with a WordPerfect file of the Visitors Guide and shortly thereafter the tourism section of www.crafts-council.pe.ca went online. (Historical sidenote: that webserver was running a very early version of Slackware Linux, and was connected to the Internet over a 14.4Kbps leased line modem connection to PEINet using a $300 Practical Peripherals modem. Our 14.4 service cost us $350/month.)

The tourism pages had attracted visitors — again, not a flood, but a healthy trickle — so when my contract work with the PEI Crafts Council was finished in January of 1995, I approached the Department about building on what I’d started, and creating a bona fide online version of the Visitors Guide.

What resulted was a three-month trial balloon, running on PEINet’s webserver (aka bud.peinet.pe.ca for those of you who were around). Perhaps the most novel thing to come out of that trial was the listing search system, still in place today (albeit heavily evolved); this was a unique tool at the time, as similar tourism sites simply offered a long laundry list of accommodations, attractions and so on, and we let users search for things like “cottages, on the beach, that serve breakfast, and allows pets.” The search system was written in Perl and, because there weren’t any open-source database systems at the time, used plain ASCII files to hold the data.

When the three month trial was over, the project was judged successful enough to proceed with development of a full-blown website for the province, and so I signed on for an additional year to put this into place. When it came time to get paid for the first time under this expanded arrangement, I got a call from the person who was responsible for making out the cheque: “who should we make the cheque out to,” they asked. “Uh, hold on a second…,” I replied, “I’ll get back to you.” That afternoon I registered the trade name Digital Island. And that’s who they made the cheque out to.

In the early days of www.gov.pe.ca, we were still running on PEINet’s webserver. My relationship with PEINet, going back to my work with the PEI Crafts Council, was somewhat strained, and so our tenancy on their webserver was never a completely happy arrangement from either side. Things came crashing to a halt in December of 1996 when we launched one of the web’s first “electronic Christmas card” applications. From November to Christmas we had hundreds of thousands of users from around the world taxing PEINet’s servers with their Christmas card sending. A couple of days before Christmas, we got a call from PEINet saying, essentially “get off our server.” Their request was not unreasonable, as we were generating a lot of traffic, and causing their other customers grief.

The solution — and we had to be quick about it — was to take a relatively low-powered desktop workstation from the desk of someone who was on early Christmas vacation, install Linux on it, and turn it into the new webserver. It stood up brilliantly, and was the province’s webserver for a couple of months until new equipment arrived.

The “three month trial” and the “extra year” have evolved into an eight year arrangement to oversee the province’s web efforts. From the tourism beginnings the site had grown to encompass almost everything the provincial government does: users can renew vehicle registrations, register frog sightings, pick up soil test results, search historical elections results, find their basketball courtand apply for a business development funding.

As the project has expanded, there’s been an ever growing team of people working inside Government on the project. Carol Murphy and Teressa Richards came on board as GIS specialists when we moved into online mapping; Carol has stayed focused on GIS while Teressa has taken on the task of wrangling government services and programs information together. Darren Hatfield came on board to edit the contents of a business directory, and has stayed to manage content for the site. Nick Grant has taken on more and more of the programming responsibilities for the site, and developed many of the systems that drive content management. And there are hundreds of other public servants working behind the scenes, using web-based content management systems, keeping information about their particular aspect of the public service up to date.

On a political level, the web project has always received support: Minister Robert Morrissey in the Callbeck government, and Ministers MacAleer, MacKinnon and Currie in the Binns government, have each, with their deputies, been 100% behind us.

From the beginning, the primary believer in and facilitator of the web project in the public service has been Carol Mayne. She handed over the floppy disk containing the Visitors Guide in 1994, and has been a tireless promoter of the website ever since. Not only wouldn’t the site exist without her, but she deserves the credit for most of the innovative and novel aspects of it, both because she said “yes” to what initially might have seemed far fetched, and because she wrangled together the funding to pay for new initiatives. Carol’s assistant, Janice Thompson, has also played an invaluable role, not only assisting Carol, but also maintaining content, and answering thousands of user questions.

And now, for me, it’s time to move on.

As of July 1, 2003, my little company will recede into a purely advisory role, and day-to-day operations, design, and development of the province’s web efforts will be assumed by the very capable in-house staff.

As you might imagine, the decision to leave the project hasn’t been an easy one — www.gov.pe.ca truly has been a labour of love for eight years, and a unique opportunity to work at the very beginning of a new medium. I owe the project a great debt, personally and professionally; leaving it behind, in some ways, feels like giving a child up for adoption. Fortunately, its adoptive parents have been around for a while, and will, I’m confident, take the project in new and interesting directions on their own.

Reinvented Inc., the company I founded as Digital Island in 1995, is expanding its relationship with Yankee Publishing, publishers of YANKEE magazine, and of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. I’ve been working with Yankee almost as long as with the province — indeed Steve Muskie at Yankee, who originally contracted with me, found me because of the Visitors Guide search — and I’m excited about the new projects we’re preparing with them. My brother Johnny has been working with Reinvented for almost two years now, doing a lot of work with Yankee; it will be good to be able to focus all of our efforts on helping Yankee contribute to the web.

The new setup also leaves me with a little more free time. Time to spend with my little family, to do some more writing, and to explore around at the fringes again for a while. It also makes us slightly more mobile, and we hope to do a little more travelling — “working vacations” you might call them — before Oliver starts school.

And so begins a new chapter…

Comments

Alan's picture
Alan on July 2, 2003 - 19:12

Ah, the round about comment of last week’s lunch explained. Well done for these years.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on July 2, 2003 - 19:20

Yes, excellent work. PEI was lucky to have you working our own web presence.

Dan James's picture
Dan James on July 2, 2003 - 19:28

As a long time www.gov.pe.ca user — thank you. Great job. i look forward to the interesting projects that will come out of your free time.

Hans Connor's picture
Hans Connor on July 2, 2003 - 19:58

From the early stages up to the present time, the PEI government web-site is one of the best sites I have ever used. (Note the term “used” and not just “seen”). I have been saying that for awhile and I’ve only recently improved my tech-savvy. I hope that the quality will be maintained. Enjoy your added free time.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on July 3, 2003 - 02:00

Peter
What an achievement!
rob

Kevin's picture
Kevin on July 3, 2003 - 15:57

Peter,

In your usual matter-of-fact way you have perhaps not let the real story of www.gov.pe.ca live as it perhaps should.

When the history of Internet is written, not for PEI or for Canada, but for the world, the Provincial Government Official Web Page of the Province of Prince Edward Island (there, enough pandering to google), will (or at least should) take its place among the true pioneering efforts which include things like eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and Google itself.

Those systems gave to early Internet users the same types of functionality which was given to ordinary citizens about their own province through the gov.pe.ca site.

We hear a lot about B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business). Those buzzwords have flown about our ears for years now because there is money behind them… and where there’s money there’s buzzwords. Those who created the aforementioned .coms were in the G2G field (geek-to-geek) and that’s why they were successful (without a lot of need for buzzwords which is why you don’t hear anyone saying “gee to gee”).

PEI’s gov site is C2C (citizen). It is the first best example of it’s kind in existence and it grew and matured as did the Internet and our government’s understanding of it. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that most of our elected officials (to the extent that they *do* so an understanding of technology (not!)) learned most of what they knew as a result of the focus gov.pe.ca brought to the genre.

It’s a spectacular achievement for both you and those in Government, chiefly Carol Mayne, who saw the potential, killed BATE with some aplomb, and moved the civil service into the most nubile beginnings of the 21st century.

The PEI government web site was given numerous awards (back when that meant something) and generally stood out as the best web site of it’s kind. Today, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the Federal Government and the province of Ontario, could all use a Mayne/Rukavina upgrade. (I site these particular examples because they are sites which I’ve tried to use in the past 30 days where I had to make a phone call (waiting for returns, offices to open, holidays to conclude, etc…) only to ask the question, “On your official web site, where do I find [insert nearly anything important and non-tourist related here]”.

Well done Pete! Well done Carol! And well done to any politician or functionary who either supported the effort or got out of the way!

It should prove, once and for all, that we ABSOLUTELY NEVER have to go outside of PEI for a solution to an Island problem.

Someone dear to me often says, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.” To paraphrase (with apologies) “No solution needs to be imported. If it’s imported, it’s not the solution.” There are reasonable limits to this type of approach to economic development and pragmatism must be our M.O., however, those limits exist outside of the information technology industry and you’ve proven your share. At least.

Alan's picture
Alan on July 3, 2003 - 17:12

I am 100% with you until:

It should prove, once and for all, that we ABSOLUTELY NEVER have to go outside of PEI for a solution to an Island problem

. This is so manifestly wrong I wouldn’t know where to begin. Be proud, not naive.

Christopher Ogg's picture
Christopher Ogg on July 3, 2003 - 18:12

Kev, the Island bureaucracy may be many things, but “nubile” wouldn’t be one of them. Some members may, perhaps, be highly nubile, but these days it would be most un-PC to venture the thought.

Ann's picture
Ann on July 3, 2003 - 18:36

Oh now.
I am a civil servant of a certain age who would dearly love to be nubile again. Perhaps it is an insult only to the actually nubile…we nubile wannabes would welcome the description

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on July 3, 2003 - 19:04

Awe Ann, I remember when you were nubile <ducking very=”” low=”“>

Alan's picture
Alan on July 3, 2003 - 19:45

I think Craig has a certain nubility…but I wouldn’t say that out loud — D’OH!

Christopher's picture
Christopher on July 3, 2003 - 19:58

I wouldn’t dispute for a moment the nubility or otherwise of any PEI official of the female persuasion (though I really do draw the line at the thought of a nubile Craig, no matter what strange meds he’s been injesting) but what Kev actually said was “…and moved the civil service into the most nubile beginnings of the 21st century.”
I suggest that a nubile bureaucracy or even nubile beginnings might be stretching the concept of nubility to untenable lengths.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on July 3, 2003 - 20:47

Inarguably, we have enough well qualified Islanders and distinguished Island citizens to handle any problem or challenge right here at home.

Wayne's picture
Wayne on July 3, 2003 - 20:49

Is Carol Donnie and Blair’s sister? (This is a favourite Island passtime/game)

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on July 3, 2003 - 20:59

Yep, this is where I want to have heart surgery.

Alan's picture
Alan on July 3, 2003 - 21:07

…or eat bread…drink beer or wine or spirits…or heat my home…or drive a car…or fund my government…or train my doctors…or train my lawyers…or guard my borders…or move goods and people extra-provincially…[oh, dear]…

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on July 3, 2003 - 21:33

I have been pulled into this discussion by the word nubile.

What about a competition for the most nubile 40 plus year old PEI Civil Servants (gender neutral to be PC) after all if the WI in the UK could have a nude calendar, we too could have a Nubile Civil Servant Calendar. Maybe we could post it onto the PEI website and vote for the Civil Servant of the month?

I have a had a great picnic lunch today as you might be able to tell

Craig Willson's picture
Craig Willson on July 3, 2003 - 21:37

You should have the same lunch more often Rob — great idea — can we extend the competition to include elected officials and appointees?

Alan's picture
Alan on July 3, 2003 - 21:38

I do not want to have George 1864 as Miss May ever, ever, ever…please Lord…no…

stephen good's picture
stephen good on July 3, 2003 - 23:14

Peter:

You will be missed but I wonder if anyone will realize what they are missing. It’s not “don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” it’s that what you did with creativity, humor, genius, originality and joy may turn into a bureaucratic, inward-focused, “gotta go to work and put some more junk in that tourism page — oh, well, another day, another dollar”. I remember you saying how much you enjoyed working with the classical scholars (at the ROM, I think) because they knew they knew nothing about computers, but they knew what they wanted. You may be sui generis in being a human being with computer geek knowledge but who focuses on content and users and not on how to intimidate or impress other people with your technical knowledge. I don’t know how you kept your integrity and humility when you could easily have hooked up with a bogus dot com or become a $2,000/day consultant — but my hat is off to you for having the strength of character to do that. I second the vote that you deserve to be ranked up there with the likes of Google because the PEI site and reinvented.net are both oases of calm and simple elegance in a world awash in pop-ups, flashing fonts and hyperkinetic websites that very quickly get on my nerves. I hope the PEI government finds people who not only can do the programming but can also come up with the innovations like you did as well as adding that je ne sais quoi which makes your work so refreshing.
P.S. Sorry, Kevin, I have to agree with Alan since Peter R. is after all a CFA.
P.P.S. Does forging closer ties with Yankee mean that you won’t be beating up on poor little Island Tel so much anymore?

Wayne's picture
Wayne on July 3, 2003 - 23:27

Going “outside of PEI” does not include Peter, as he is well within the grasp of the Island…PFA or not, he is fair game, and qualifies as local talent.

The world has been the beneficary of many fine Island brewmasters, physicians, lawyer-trainers,(won’t touch it)writers, playrights, and hockey players who have chosen to live abroad.

Alan's picture
Alan on July 4, 2003 - 00:04

[…hmmm…qualifies as local talent…] Wayne is a big fat cheater! If you are going to have an arbitrary and undefinable standard at least stick to it!

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