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…