The Web-based Informatics Development Environment (WIDE)

Don Cowan, Shirley Fenton, Doug Mulholland1

Computer Systems Group

University of Waterloo


Members of the Computer Systems Group (CSG) at the University of Waterloo have been developing portal technologies and deploying Web-based portals based on these technologies since the early 1990s. Current portals, called Community Learning Spaces, are constructed using the Web-based Informatics Development Environment (WIDE).

The Community Learning Spaces are based on a service-oriented architecture and use the WIDE software toolkit to implement these services to enable the design, construction, deployment, maintenance and operation of complex Web-based systems. WIDE is primarily based on open source software technology and consists of a number of service and supporting frameworks. Applications can include input forms or reports containing extensive multimedia materials such as imaginative use of maps or any 2-dimensional diagram, Web sites, databases, indexing and searching methods, agents, and push technologies. WIDE also contains a knowledge management system that supports documentation of technical information and best practices.

The structures underlying the services are usually expressed in an XML-based declarative language that uses metadata and XSL. In the WIDE metadata context, “programming” has effectively been replaced with a declarative methodology thus making it possible to provide a wizard or forms-based approach to building Web-based systems. Thus, WIDE has almost eliminated the need for programming in the construction of complex Web-based systems. Internally WIDE uses a bootstrap approach; its extensions are implemented using its own metadata technology. WIDE can support a rapid development paradigm and new applications can be quickly built and demonstrated.

This document contains a description of the WIDE Toolkit and many of the portals that have been developed. Web addresses for these portals are provided where appropriate. All of the portals are still operational, but may not be accessible to external users at this time either because they are still waiting final publication approval, are experimental, or use older versions of the WIDE that are no longer supported. However the underlying data provided by these portals is still useful and accessible.

The WIDE Toolkit and Service Frameworks

A mapping services framework. The interactive maps are delivered from a map-server, which supports zoom-in or zoom-out functionality and positioning over areas of interest. When connected to a database or other directory the maps can be used to:

The maps can represent any spatial or map-based concept including thematic maps such as ones showing environmental or demographic data, roadmaps or even floor plans. Combinations of maps can be displayed such as a road map with a superimposed thematic map. Vector-based maps can also be displayed where required.

The simple API (application program interface) to the maps provided by the server supports rapid development of map-based applications. The mapping functionality is based on the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) open W3C standard. Data can be geo-referenced or located using various forms of geo-coding including Lat-long, UTM, address range, postal code or wireless GPS.

The mapping service framework does not use traditional GIS software to support any of the mapping functionality. The mapping service framework minimizes complexity, support, cost, and time usually associated with creating and operating map-based applications.

A diagram and chart services framework. This framework manages and delivers specified interactive diagram and chart types upon request for presentation of data on the Web or in other formats. The diagram and chart services are also based on the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) open W3C standard and so provide similar functionality to the mapping service framework.

An XML-based metadata framework. The structure of databases, Web sites, agents, and applications including reports and input forms with maps and diagrams are described using XML. They are transformed into operating applications through the use of XSL “programs.” Any application can describe and subsequently access databases or Web sites reachable anywhere over the Internet.

A report services framework. This framework supports the management of interactive report and input form types including maps, charts and diagrams and delivers them on request for presentation on the Web or in other formats. The user indirectly specifies the form type and the data that that is to be presented or requested. The framework then chooses the report or input form type and populates it with the requested data.

A content management services framework. This framework supports the management of text and multimedia information in a database where it can be viewed, searched, maintained and then published for use on the Web or in other formats.

An access control service framework. Access to any content such as a database, Web site or other text and multimedia content can be provided with multi-level access controls to determine who can read or change data. For example, each entry in a database can be accessed by the individual who “owns” it and has the authority to make changes.

A Web and database searching service framework. This service framework contains an indexing agent and search engine that will index known Web sites and databases and support searching. The results from Web searches are categorized based on different search criteria such as the proximity of words in a phrase. The results of combined database and Web searches can be presented together. Temporal searches are also possible where the results of a search can be saved and the search then re-executed at a later time. The results of the two searches can be compared to see if new results have appeared in the intervening time interval.

A push/notification service framework. The Web is naturally a pull medium. A user must look for information by pulling it out of the Web. The general push/notification service framework allows developers to create systems that allow users to specify conditions under which they wish to be notified or have information pushed at them. For example, someone who is buying a house could request notification if a house meeting his/her specifications becomes available.

An agent service framework. The agent service framework supports the description of agents that will act autonomously to perform utility tasks within an application. Agents are often defined to manage redundancy. For example, agents could be defined to verify the content of “local” databases against authoritative sources or to allow a user to type information once while submitting the data to multiple databases or Web sites.

The academy – a knowledge management framework. The academy framework is used to support widespread dissemination of “documentation” and knowledge describing how applications can be built from the WIDE Toolkit. Documentation includes best practices as well as principles of proper design for the Web and the Internet. The academy uses the StudySpace educational interface that allows individual users to keep and manage personal annotations related to the document being read.

Recent and Current Portal Projects by Sector

Urban and Rural Community Information

There are several portals that have been developed to support urban and rural community information. We will describe them in the order in which they were developed.

The Waterloo Information Network (WIN) – This portal was developed in 1998-99 as a portal for the City of Waterloo. It had a complete business directory for the City, which was searchable by keyword, name of business and similar properties and also provided timed advertising of local events. Mapping, which was not based on a geographic information system (GIS), was used to provide the functionality described previously.

Mapcheck – An advanced version of WIN was created for Waterloo Region by a company named Mapcheck that is no longer in operation. The Mapcheck system was donated to the CSG and is stored on the CSG servers. Although it used a different mapping approach it provided similar facilities to WIN for all of Waterloo Region.

County of Oxford Online (COOL – The County of Oxford adopted an early version of the WIDE to develop their portal. The COOL portal has features similar to the WIN and Mapcheck portals, but has used a different organization. The COOL portal chose to use a mapping system based on GIS and developed by the GeoGraphics Information Systems (GGIS) Group of the County of Oxford.

The Rural Switchboard ( - The Rural Switchboard portal, which is one of a number of community learning spaces developed by CSG, contains information related to business, tourism, arts and culture in the rural communities in Waterloo, Perth and Oxford counties. The Rural Switchboard is a community learning space and uses the WIDE and the mapping functionality described earlier.

Arts and Culture

Waterloo Regional Arts Council (WRAC - - The WRAC site, which is a community learning space, provides a comprehensive overview of arts and culture in Waterloo Region. There are databases of all the individuals and organizations involved in the arts and all the venues that are available to artists for presentations, displays and similar activities. The portal contains profiles of some local artists with interactive multimedia presentations of their work, a database of press releases that can be automatically sent to subscribers who register and indicate their preferences and a planning calendar. This calendar can be used to download to multiple local event calendars. The WRAC portal is a community learning space and uses the WIDE and the mapping functionality described earlier.

Economic Development

Canada’s Technology Triangle (CTT - - currently not public) - The CTT site is a community learning space and uses the WIDE and the mapping functionality described earlier. The site contains a business directory of all its members and a directory of commercial real estate (buildings and land).


Rapid Visualization Environment for Health Data – This experimental project, also a community learning space, incorporates maps and databases that can be used to visualize and understand better the operation of the Ontario Health System. It is intended that this portal might be used as a management “dashboard” for operational assessment purposes.

A Web-Based Tool for Defining Bandwidth Requirements of PACS Networks - Hospital groups are often faced with the problem of transmitting digital images such as Xrays, MRI or CAT scans to expert teams of radiologists in different locations. Thus, it becomes necessary to calculate present and future loads to determine when there will be a need to purchase additional network capacity. This portal, another community learning space, incorporates databases of network capacity and a calculator that can be used to compute network traffic based on assumed network input.

Point of View’ Intelligent Middleware - CSG is working with DataGlider a Canadian company specializing in Enterprise Healthcare Portal technology. Using their own technology and parts of WIDE, CSG and DataGlider are building a health care portal to support the display of multiple medical reports (portlets) through a portal.

Health Informatics ( - CSG has produced a Web portal, based on the community learning space concept, for the Waterloo Institute for Health Informatics Research (WIHIR) that describes the institute and its members.

Health Informatics Competencies ( - Dominic Covvey at the University of Waterloo has been doing research on assessing competencies for people interested in a career in health informatics. Those interested in this type of career can access the Web portal, based on the community learning space concept, to learn about the various types of positions available in health informatics. By completing a questionnaire an individual can be assessed on their preparation for a specific occupation in the field.

VON CareNet: VON Caregiver Resource Network– This experimental community learning space project, sponsored by the Victorian Order of Nurses is conceived as an Internet-based Community of Practice support tool to assist informal caregivers in providing effective and sustainable care in the home setting and in achieving effective and efficient communications with professional personnel.

The Regional Physician Webspace Project - The Regional Physician Webspace ( project is intended to provide a virtual community with a wide array of support services for physicians in the Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (KWC) region. Among its purposes is to provide an information environment that links physicians to each other, to the University of Waterloo, to regional healthcare facilities, and to information resources. It is intended to create another attractive aspect of the region that facilitates physician recruitment and retention.


COMWASH – The COMWASH portal, a community learning space, is dedicated to presenting information about the quality of water in a district of the Republic of Malawi in Africa. There is a database of all water sources and these are mapped using the mapping technology described earlier. Local citizens can monitor existing water sources and change values such as water bacterial content, and also add new water sources to the database.

Community Support

Social Planning Council of Kitchener Waterloo - The Quality of Life portal, a community learning space, provides information from the Social Planning Council of Kitchener Waterloo ( It contains a number of community based resources including the Blue Book, a detailed listing of all community resources in Kitchener Waterloo.

Volunteer Action Centre (VAC) of Kitchener Waterloo and area - The VAC portal, a community learning space, will provide individuals with an opportunity to discover and apply for various volunteer opportunities within the greater Kitchener-Waterloo community and to provide related support services.

Cultural Landscape

Mapset ( - The Mapset portal contains a number of examples of community learning space and mapping technology based on the WIDE. One section illustrates the many buildings in the Galt section of Cambridge Ontario thus providing an overview of the cultural landscape of the community.

Current Work

In addition to portals described previously there are a number of projects under way in various sectors that use the WIDE and are based on the community learning space concept. These include large-scale environmental projects with groups in Ontario, work with CIDA and the United Nations on environmental and public health related projects in the developing world, and work on population health and lifestyle change. In the municipal area there is work on public security and municipal infrastructure management. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada has just funded a $400,000 project to support the deployment of a multi-lingual portal for newcomers to Waterloo Region, particularly immigrants called Project NOW. This a joint project with the Waterloo Public Library as the lead agency.

1 e-mail dcowan [at], sfenton [at], dwm [at]