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Webcams find a focus

IT SPECIAL: Web cameras on site are shaking off their 'Big Brother' image and being marketed as genuine tools for improving construction safety and efficiency, as Margo Cole reports.

Are you fed up with traipsing the length and breadth of the country to check progress on site?

If so, the answer might be to stay at home and keep an eye on construction from the comfort and safety of your office. The latest generation of commercial web cameras makes it possible to receive high resolution, almost real time pictures from site to office using any standard PC and browser.

Market leader in visual application solutions is Kircaldybased CamVista, which launched just two years ago and counts Sainsbury's, Railtrack, McDonald's and BSkyB among its clients. And their experience has shown that benefits go well beyond the novelty value of being able to call up the site at the click of a mouse.

According to CamVista chief executive Robert Kilgour, the system has real value in cutting down site visits. McDonald's, which used a mobile version during the refitting of its outlet at Waterloo station, put the cost of each site visit at £3,500 to £4,000 because people were coming from all over, he says. 'Instead, they could sit at their desks and have a conference call with the site manager as he took the mobile system around.'

Other savings are less tangible: spotting a potential mistake before it happens, or watching out for dangerous practices to prevent accidents. But, not surprisingly, clients are increasingly asking for figures to justify the expenditure.

'Six months ago the intangible benefits were enough for the finance guys, ' says Kilgour.

'Now they need some real tangible benefits, and the most obvious one is less travelling: cutting down on travel costs, hotel bills and the cost of everyone's time.

And since 11 September there is more reluctance to travel.'

There are other advantages to keeping watch on site 24 hours a day, says Kilgour, particularly when it comes to health and safety and contractual disputes.

In response to clients' demands, CamVista archives the images, with the date and time stamped every hour on the hour. If there is an accident on site, therefore, the circumstances leading up to it - possibly even the accident itself - will be caught on camera and can be retrieved and studied.

And there will be no hiding place for contractors making spurious claims for adverse weather, says Kilgour: 'If they are asking for extra time or money, the client will be able to pull out the CD and actually look at what was happening on site during that period.'

While the legal admissibility of electronic data has yet to be challenged in court, Kilgour believes the weight of evidence provided by visual images might stop disputes getting that far. 'If you are presented with the evidence, you are probably going to settle, ' he says.

Financially, the CamVista system only stacks up for projects that last at least 12 months.

The standard cost for one camera is £3,500 up front and £500 a month for running costs - not including the cost of telecommunications. For that, the company surveys the site to find the best camera location; supplies and installs the equipment; provides access for whoever needs it;

designs and builds websites - with seamless, secure links to existing websites if required;

and undertakes maintenance and archiving.

Kilgour developed the system after calling time on a career building up a nursing home business. By the time he left in 1999, he claims, the job had become '98% hassle and 2% fun'.

Part of the hassle was caused by keeping tabs on a range of new build and refurbishment projects.

Joining forces with his brother and a friend, who both had a background in tourism, he started looking at the commercial potential of webcam technology.

The first stage was camvista. com, a website showing images from over 40 cameras set up at tourist and sports attractions from the London Eye to Edinburgh Castle and Hibernian Football Club. It is immensely popular, receiving up to 25,000 hits a day, and also acts as a valuable marketing tool. A director of Miller Construction called after seeing the Hibs views, and Kilgour worked with multi-millionaire illusionist David Copperfield to advertise his show, installing a series of webcams on the billboard in New York's Times Square. One was fixed in Copperfield's eye on the poster, and the web images carried the tag line 'See Times Square through David Copperfield's eyes'.

Construction clients are starting to embrace the idea of a permanent web-based visual record of construction; some are making it a contract condition in tender documents. Contractors, no doubt concerned about the Big Brother surveillance aspect, are less keen, although Kilgour says one is considering offering it as standard on all its projects.

'They see it as a differentiator in tendering, ' he explains.

CamVista itself is in talks with the six largest project extranet companies in the UK which he hopes will result in strategic partnerships to provide a visual service as part of each system.

But even with the hard work, Kilgour admits this fast moving world comes with a higher 'fun quotient': the ratio is now 75% fun to 25% hassle.

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