WA govt pilots networked neighbourhoods

The Western Australian government will this month formally announce a Web application project being piloted by 500 households that aims to ‘network’ the neighbourhoods of WA residents.

Residents of the new Picton Waters Estate in Bunbury, in regional WA, are trialling Networked Neighbourhoods, a Web site that helps people find others in their community with common interests.

The project was designed by the WA Department of Premier and Cabinet’s Office of E-Government, developed by Perth’s Beacon Technologies, and received $800,000 funding from Microsoft. The WA Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, will officially launch the project on August 27.

Each home in the new estate has a new PC and fibre optic cable broadband access from ISP WestNet, courtesy of property developer Pindan.

“Networked Neighbourhoods is about changing social structures,” said Jackie Gill, project manager at the Premier’s Office. “It’s about using the Internet to get people meeting locally by creating communities of common interests.

“We’re only six weeks into this but already we’ve got communities ranging from kids organising to play soccer in the street to victims of sexual assault,” she said.

The Networked Neighbourhoods Web site helps Picton Waters residents initiate and organise common-interest communities based on their local area. To find a community, a user selects a special interest from a menu, which generates a list of communities. Selecting a community then displays contact and meeting information such as conditions and location.

While users can send messages to each other, there is no long-term facility to archive messages, nor are there discussion boards or chat services, as the purpose of the project is to get people meeting in person, Gill said.

Each resident also has a private ‘homepage’, which lists messages received, as well as a calendar to manage appointments.

Messaging is based on permissions to prevent spam, Gill said, and users’ e-mail addresses and personal details are kept hidden.

Networked Neighbourhoods could also help businesses, Gill said.

“Let’s say there’s a local plumbing community and you need to get your tap fixed,” she said. “You’d search for plumbing, opt into the community, choose your recipients, and send your message.

“Or, a plumber could advertise specials for part of the local area, and depending on your permission levels you might be able to take advantage of that.”

It is in this area that the project relies on an (always-on) broadband connection, as Networked Neighbourhoods is a 24x7 application, Gill said.

The application could run on a dial-up connection, she said, but broadband served the project better by giving users permanent access to instant messages.

“It’s like SMS, but more powerful,” she said.

Networked Neighbourhoods also aims to improve government service delivery by allowing citizens to choose a customised information service.

“An example is the Bunbury patient information centre,” Gill said. “We’ve created a community for this in Networked Neighbourhoods.

“The government can profile members who opt-in and send specific types of health information to those members,” she said.

The catalyst for the project though was one of Gill’s own social experiences.

“This came out of my personal interest; coming from the bush to live in Perth as a single, working mum,” she said.

“There’s no traditional social structure, no one inviting you to picnics on the weekend. This was when I was project manager of Online WA communities. So I thought I should be able to solve this problem.

“It took five or six years though to get to the stage where we could build the technology.

“Phil Lord, a colleague of mine, was working on Online WA; the state government portal with channels like health, tourism and the like.

“And we both thought, how can we make this citizen-centric? And Networked Neighbourhoods was the result,” she said.

The project will run until March, when the Office will decide whether there is a business case to expand Networked Neighbourhoods.

“[In terms of technical capability], we would only need more servers to expand,” Gill said.

Developed by .Net newbies

Networked Neighbourhoods is the first .Net Passport implementation in Australian government, according to Microsoft consulting services manager Alan Watts.

It was also the first .Net project for Java developers-turned-Microsoft partners, Beacon Technologies, said Tim Eliot, project manager at Beacon.

“Microsoft was looking for a partner for Web development [of this project], ” he said. “That’s how we became involved.”

Beacon’s team of five developers created Networked Neighbourhoods over 12 months, Eliot said. The team considered 60 use cases of how the application might work.

“Conceptually, there were lots of new components,” Eliot said. “It was a largely experimental project. We were taking very open, not proven process ideas, and leveraging new technology to fit our vision.”

“How e-mail is used is the big difference with this project. A common question by our users is ‘can’t I just e-mail them?’ We’re giving them the listserver admin ability here, and we leveraged Exchange to build the communities.

“Another challenge was the advanced search technology. There was the challenge of taking the interests of the user and matching those with the community descriptions,” Eliot said.

Hosted at Unisys West’s data centre, Networked Neighbourhoods runs on Windows Server 2003 and uses Internet Information Services, Internet Security and Acceleration Server, SQL Server 2000, Exchange 2000, Content Management Server 2002 and Microsoft Operations Manager at the back end.

Networked Neighbourhoods is an ASP.Net-based application, developed with Visual Studio .Net and written in C#.

A three-layer architecture was used, consisting a firewall, front-end Web server, application server, and two database layers in SQL Server and Exchange.

“We also used webDAV to interact with Exchange,” Eliot said.

“Scaling was a big consideration. We knew it was going to grow, but you can’t always test this in a pilot environment.”

Although using .Net required “lots of learning”, the gain in productivity was very good, he said.

“We found we could package up the application and deploy it very quickly.”

Since development finished, Beacon’s role has changed to support, and further development will depend on whether the project continues.

“We could extend the Web services [in future]. There could be ways to plugin external Web services to enhance functionality,” Eliot said.

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