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talking point

The geotechnical community should look to sport to discover what opportunities are offered by the internet, says Rainer Massarsch.

What does Italian football have in common with foundation engineering? Very little, you may think. If so - consider the following: Every Sunday during the Italian football season, fans from all over the world log on to the website of their favourite team to 'take part in the game'. Most of these sites are operated by football fans but use state of the art IT-tools, including instant conversion of TV pictures into web images, videos of goals, on-line chat and video-supported discussions with players and the clubs.

Since football has become big business, it can no longer afford to neglect this growing and powerful market.The web has not only become the glue between fans and the club but has also created an intimate network between fans.

Sampdoria, for example, has a large and loyal fan base which extends far beyond its home town of Genoa.At least once a year fans travel to Genoa, not to discuss football, but to enjoy a pizza with friends they have met via the internet.

Sport was quick to embrace the possibilities offered by the web and new business ventures soon followed, such as 'virtual travel agencies'offering customised trips by packaging products from traditional travel agents using the navigation resources of the internet.

One reason internet sport ventures have been successful is because they have a well-defined, dedicated target group open to exchanging information.More importantly, they offer 'valuable content'- information fans are interested in.

Here lies the similarity between football and geotechnics.

Wherever information flow is involved, the internet will play an increasingly important role.Take the following example, which can be carried out with technology available today.

A foundation contractor on a project in Australia needs to verify the quality and bearing capacity of a large number of piles at short notice.Using an internet service provider, the project manager requests offers for planning, monitoring and evaluating a dynamic pile test programme.He then selects a consultant from a list of on-line bids which are rated by the independent service provider, based on price, general competence and past experience.

Say the chosen consultant is employed by a North American company, but is based in Sweden.The consultant accesses a password-protected website which contains all the project information and plans the test programme accordingly.

During field tests, the site engineer has a cellular phone, a digital camera and a laptop computer attached to the testing system.This means the testing consultant can talk to the engineer and also has access to the test data and pictures of the site via the internet.The instant the test blow occurs, measurements appear on the consultant's screen.He can examine the results and, if necessary, request additional tests.

Once tests are finished, data is analysed in Sweden (overnight, Australian time) and then sent to North America, where it is put on a database and compared with previous tests.The results are then reviewed by another engineer and sent back to site.The next day, the team can log on to the project website and discuss the results.

In the future, geotechnical work will be increasingly performed on the internet, sharing information and working independent of location and time.

The internet offers a variety of ways of disseminating technical information.In the future, textbooks will be published electronically, product and service providers will have their own websites and analysis services will be available in the form of virtual consulting groups made up of specialists from different technical disciplines.Conferences will also change, with traditional papers evolving into information systems with several contributors.The focus will be more on the social aspects and making of personal contacts because pure technical matters are better discussed on the internet.

The information explosion has resulted in a need for quality content.

Specialised web navigators which gather, analyse and present useful technical, commercial and other information for specific disciplines have emerged, creating vertical web communities.

Geotechnical engineers are only just starting to take advantage of the many possibilities offered by emerging information technology.

But why so slowly? Because the industry is conservative and cautious.Experience dominates many technical and commercial decisions and product and technology development is about ten times slower than that of the electronics industry.

However, the forces behind the explosive growth of information technology are so powerful that even conservative industries must adapt to new rules governing information exchange.And last, but not least, young graduate engineers will become the driving force behind these exciting developments.And many of them are also sport fans!

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