New Brunswick

Tourism project cost N.B. taxpayers $125K before coming to a dead end

A project to create tailored smartphone app content for tourists visiting New Brunswick took longer than anticipated, and was ultimately abandoned after the government sank $125,000 into it.

Tailored smartphone content was intended to inform tourists on where to stop while travelling in province

The Department of Tourism Heritage and Culture first set out to create tailored smartphone content for the Acadian scenic drive, which spans the province's eastern coast and includes stops such as Parlee Beach Provincial Park. (CBC)
New Brunswick's journey to a fancy scenic-drive audio app was a bumpy and meandering road trip that never reached its destination. 

It also cost taxpayers $125,000, with nothing to show for it.

According to documents obtained by CBC News through the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, provincial officials acknowledged they bit off more than they could chew when they pitched the Gypsy Guide app.

The goal in the fall of 2017 was to have the Vancouver company develop New Brunswick editions of its successful smartphone app.

The apps use a traveller's GPS locations to cue them to stop and visit nearby attractions.

"At the time we were trying to promote people getting off the highway to take advantage of the scenic drives," says Carol Alderdice, who oversaw web and app-based tourism marketing for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture.

"We've got so many things along the scenic drives that people don't know anything about." 

Carol Alderdice, who at the time worked for the Department of Tourism, Heritage and Culture, said the intent was to use the app to get tourists to stop and visit some of New Brunswick's tourist sites. (Submitted by Carol Alderdice)

Alderdice tried out one of the company's other apps and "I thought it was phenomenal. It was like having your own tour guide right there in the car with you." 

But a year and a half after the work began, following multiple changes and rewrites to the scripts and repeated and expensive fixes to the audio tracks, the project was cancelled.

A turbulent ride from the start

"This has been a difficult project from the beginning," one civil servant overseeing the work wrote. "There was a gross underestimating and/or understanding of the time required for the creation of the audio recording." 

Departmental staff also had to meet tight deadlines at each stage, "which is difficult to achieve in real life when special projects conflict with day-to-day," according to a "lessons learned" document from September 2018.

Tourism Minister Tammy Scott-Wallace did not respond to an interview request about the documents, which predate her time in the job.

Spokesperson Jeremy Trevors said "the required timelines, cost and staff resources surpassed what was committed in the original Gypsy Guide proposal. After governments changed, there was a decision not to spend more money on the project."

Gypsy Guide has been creating travel audio apps since 2006 and has developed individual apps for more than 40 drives around Canada and the United States, many of them earning five-star reviews from users.

In New Brunswick, the plan was to develop apps for the province's five designated scenic drives at an estimated total cost of $240,000.

Officials decided to develop one app, for the Acadian scenic drive up the province's eastern coast, in time to pilot it during the 2018 summer tourism season.

Followers travelling the route would be prompted, for example, to visit well-known sites like the Pays de la Sagouine, or more obscure attractions such as the Camerons Mills covered bridge. 

The Pays de la Sagouine cultural site is a popular stop along the Acadian scenic drive. (Le Pays de la Sagouine)

If that worked well, apps for New Brunswick's other four scenic drives would roll out in 2019.

Substantial content development required

Gypsy Guide normally did most of the writing for their apps in-house, according to a presentation for tourism staff, and "when they've contracted it, it yielded mixed results."

But the Acadian scenic drive, which runs from the Nova Scotia border up the coast to the Bay of Chaleur, was much longer than the drives usually covered by Gyspy Guide apps, Alderdice said.

Provincial civil servants decided to get the work done locally, and it was a lot of work: 30,000 words of script for literally hundreds of different audio files in both English and French.

"There is substantial content development required," said Rick Bulich, the founder and CEO of Gypsy Guide, in one email.

The department hired Saint John's Bonfire Communications to research and write the scripts and regional marketing firm M5 to do the audio recordings.

Disagreements about the scripts and extensive edits and corrections dragged on well past the April 2018 target for the launch of the first app. That meant M5 didn't get the material on time to make the recordings on schedule.

Emilie Comeau-Sinclair, a special projects manager at the department, found early drafts did not feel "very personal. There are a lot of historical facts but no really relatable stories, local folklore etc."

She also corrected errors she identified about Acadian touchstones such as the Tintamarre and Evangeline.

Thousands take part in Tintamarre in Bouctouche on National Acadian Day. (Radio-Canada)

The writer at Bonfire, Sean Ridder, told her he was disappointed she removed a reference to Acadian resistance leader Beausoleil Broussard being an ancestor of the pop singer Beyoncé, "but I understand that you have final say over the script content!"

In May, Comeau-Sinclair complained that "many of the things were added back in that I had cut in the last version." M5 estimated "updated" recording sessions would cost another $15,000. 

By July, the department's deputy minister, Françoise Roy, was running out of patience and told staff she wanted the app "in market within two weeks," assistant deputy minister Carol Sharpe wrote in an email.

"Yikes!!!" wrote Alderdice, who had left the department to become CEO of the the Tourism Industry Association of New Brunswick. "We do need to be realistic. These delays were caused by not doing it right in the first place."

By the time the audio files were finished at the end of July, Bulich had to tell the New Brunswick officials that the app could not be ready in two weeks. 

"I'm not comfortable with the 'scrambling' nature of how this needs to be completed," he added, saying testing couldn't be finished before Labour Day. He suggested the department aim for the spring of 2019, giving it more time to get everything right. 

Alderdice, who left the department that summer, now says that "you can edit yourself to death."

"To me it would have made sense to just introduce the pilot and then make the adjustments along the way," she says.  "You gotta, OK, decide. I've been in web development forever and if you wait until everything is perfect, you never get anything out."

More bumps along the way

An initial version of the app was finally ready for a test drive at the end of August and that uncovered "more issues," according to an email from Martine Dugas, a digital production specialist at the department who drove the route with a colleague.

A presentation shows how the Gypsy App would look to tourists using it in New Brunswick. (Government of New Brunswick)

Fixes were needed to the English version and the French version had a longer text that needed more cuts to fit the drive time. 

"Because it's not always convenient to include details, the users are on their own to find some of the attractions mentioned," she wrote. "Can be a source of frustration."

She recommended the department "revisit the original mandate and benefits of this app." 

In September, with script revisions still underway, Comeau-Sinclair drafted a summary of the process so far. She said there should have been "strong management" with "clear timelines." 

She added: "The current text was not driven when written, and this created the need for major rewrite which created a need for more hours of ... recording - additional work for talent, sound engineer, studio time."

Province delivers late

In Vancouver, Bulich had scheduled other work that fall and wasn't able to squeeze the late New Brunswick material into his plans.

"I'm not sure when I will have time available to work on this," he wrote in an October email.

"It's been over a year since we received the go-ahead for this project. You can send over the finished files when you are ready but at this point I cannot allocate any guaranteed timing that we would be able to turn it back around." 

An even less patient-sounding Bulich sent the same message in February 2019 when another official, Suzanne MacDonald, took over the project in an attempt to revive it.

Bulich told her Gypsy Guide's schedule was "completely full until the summer at least."

"We too have priorities that we plan for months in advance," he wrote. "We are unable to operate on short notice 'deadlines' and without consultation. We allocated time to complete the project in fall 2017 and winter and spring of 2018, as per our contract."

A timeline shows when the provincial government had hoped to have the project completed. (Government of New Brunswick)

In early March M5 was asked for a cost estimate to do edits and corrections to the English audio files.

At that point, there had been so many changes that a sixth colour, orange, had to be added to a colour-coded edit tracking system to keep everything straight. 

But the end was near.

On March 11 Sharpe told Roy that "we need to make a decision today" about sticking with the Gypsy Guide app.

She pointed out that still more changes to the audio recordings were needed and that changes to the scenic drives, such as new businesses opening and others closing, would require annual updates to the app.

On top of that was a lack of funding due to what she called "budget reductions," likely a reference to the Progressive Conservative government's first budget, a week later, that slashed tourism funding from $20.2 million to $12.8 million.

The department had spent $125,930 until that point and would need another $81,400 to keep going. 

"I am concerned about continuing on and very cognizant we have already spent a great deal of time and money on this pilot project," she wrote.

The app project was officially killed later that day. 

Alderdice says because she left the department in 2018, she couldn't comment on some of the problems with creating Gypsy Guide apps for New Brunswick.

Trevors said the department "does not intend to develop a similar application in the future" but Alderdice said she still thinks it was a good idea. "I do think that it's a great app to get people off the highway," she said.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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