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Internet Used to Link Isolated Communities

Internet Used to Link Isolated Communities

An innovative Internet based system developed as part of a recently launched tourism initiative on the North Island East Coast could be used to link isolated communities in many parts of the world.

The cutting edge technology has been developed as part of KiwiTrails, an initiative to connect rural communities offering tourism activities between Rotorua and East Cape.

With investment from Technology New Zealand, a government agency that funds research and experimental development in private companies, research bodies have collaborated to develop software and strategies designed to allow small operators to market their wares, without investing in costly brochures or advertisements.

The project has been co-ordinated by Community Employment Group (CEG) keyworker Tony Goodman with the R & D carried out by members of the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute (NZTRI) based at Auckland University of Technology and involving Victoria University in Wellington, and the University of Auckland. The NZTRI and CEG are sponsoring the system, making it free for organisations using it.

The new software, developed by Dr Ulrich Speidel at the University of Auckland, resembles an electronic Yellow Pages with multiple improvements. Each organisation or business that signs up gets their own web page with text and images and can choose to have the page linked to other businesses. For example a Bed & Breakfast facility may want to link to a local restaurant which may in turn link to an organic grower supplying fresh produce. It enables small tourism providers and operators to market themselves for free and is easy to use, meaning people can update their own online details with just half an hour’s training. In addition KiwiTrails offers a fully automated web-based enquiry and booking system for tourists.

The seeds of the innovation were sown when Professor Simon Milne (AUT) from the New Zealand Tourism Research Institute investigated innovative ways of using the web while working with Inuit communities in the Arctic.

“Building virtual communities seemed to me a really good way of connecting people in isolated areas and giving them access to the benefits that come from critical mass,” Simon Milne says. “The East Coast is not on the well trodden tourist trails and individual operators there don’t typically have resources to promote themselves or offer electronic services. This system uses technology to draw them all together,” Professor Milne says.

Technology New Zealand Investment Manager Alan Groves says the project is an exciting way of marrying new technologies with established communities. “This is about injecting technological innovation at a grass roots level, to build communities from the bottom up. Many of the operators in the East Coast region are Maori, and this has the added advantage of offering sustainable economic development that allows them to remain in their home region.”

Dr Speidel says the system has been custom made to suit the East Coast community but has exciting potential for other regions and other sectors.

“Part of our goal was to increase the uptake of technology in smaller communities. People in isolated places are sometimes nervous of new technology and many businesses simply don’t have the turnover to justify a website,” he says.

Dr Speidel says the history of email uptake provided valuable lessons when he began designing the KiwiTrails software.

“It was ease of access that really got people going with email – when they could use web based services from any PC without having to configure their own e-mail client. We set out to design something that would similarly minimise the hassles and maximise the benefits for users. We’ve now come up with a blueprint that could be adapted for any cottage or tourism industry around the world.”

The software is open-source, meaning it’s freely accessible to programmers who can read, redistribute and modify the source code, thereby helping the software to evolve much faster than with conventional development.

KiwiTrails Co-ordinator Tony Goodman, who has worked on the project for five years, says that will ensure, through licensing agreements, that improvements made to the software around the world flow back to the original developers.

“That is part of the philosophy underpinning this project,” Tony Goodman says. “Whereas grants from organisations like Technology New Zealand usually help the promoter or inventor to make more money, this scheme benefits a vast swarm of users – the tourism operators – who will increase their earnings.”

Just as the software is expected to improve with use, the services offered to tourists will also expand over time. The benefits for tourists at the moment include access to online booking facilities, mini buses to provide transport links between Whakatane, Opotiki, East Coast, Gisborne, Wairoa, Waikaremoana and Ruatahuna and computers accessible to tourists at key spots on route, so they can plan their next stop.

Tony Goodman says ultimately it’s hoped that tourists will have access to the website through a computer screen on the back of each mini van seat and that the website will also feature a range of maps and geographical information.

A Trust is being set up to ensure the website is viable long term and will generate income from commissions on bookings.

Visit the KiwiTrails website at http:// http://www.kiwitrails.co.nz

Technology New Zealand is part of the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and invests in research and development projects which result in new products, processes or services.

Technology New Zealand is committed to building internationally competitive, value-added and export focused companies

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