Olympics officials gear up for icy IT challenge

Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) officials heading to the Turin Winter Olympic Games this February are banking on a technology upgrade and the skills of a new IT manager to deliver communications capable of withstanding icy temperatures and mountainous terrain.

Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) officials heading to the Turin Winter Olympic Games this February are banking on a technology upgrade and the skills of a new IT manager to deliver communications capable of withstanding icy temperatures and mountainous terrain.

Speaking with ZDNet Australia this week, the AOC's recently-appointed IT chief Adrian Vallino said officials attending the games would be issued with BlackBerry personal digital assistants with Telstra phone reception via satellite and have secure desktop access to the AOC's Sydney network via Citrix software.

The staff will undertake a raft of administration and support tasks for the 30-odd Australian athletes competing in 12 sports throughout the Games, which run from 10-29 February next year.

Vallino -- who was appointed in May this year and is the 25-employee AOC's only technology worker -- said the previous system had seen staff connecting back to their Sydney desktops via a virtual private network from leased laptops.

The Sydney machines had to remain logged into the AOC network for this to work, he said. In addition, staff had to make do with mobile phones that were sometimes unusable due to a lack of network coverage.

This unwieldy setup meant staff sometimes had to dictate press releases or notifications down the phone or race back to their temporary offices to key them in, Vallino said. This often proved problematic.

"It's not easy to physically maneouvre around a snow village unless you're particularly good on a snowboard," he said.

The BlackBerrys are expected to make a major difference, particularly with their ability to read documents in standard office formats.

"[AOC president] John Coates could receive [the document], approve it, and it would go on to the AOC Web site immediately," said Vallino.

However, an on-site evaluation revealed the BlackBerrys still had some minor difficulties. "We had our management team go over for an inspection and we tested the BlackBerrys," Vallino said. "They didn't black out, but at times they were a bit slow."

The AOC has also undertaken extensive testing of the adequacy of GPRS coverage with Telstra to ensure the new communications program for the Games worked.

The old leased laptops and desktop machines have been replaced with new laptops from Lenovo.

"We're going through a hardware refresh program at the moment -- we have some hardware here that is three or four years old -- so we've taken that opportunity to buy laptops instead of renting or leasing them," said Vallino.

"We'll remove the current desktop setup, and will replace that with a laptop, docking station and monitor, and that's all they need. Then they can gain remote access from any Internet base station -- for example an Internet cafe."

The AOC is also in the final stages of building a corporate intranet, which will allow staff to share news and distribute documents internally. The site -- expected to be completed in a month's time -- will tie the national body more closely to state Olympic Committees.

Web site relaunch
However, while these tasks have kept Vallino busy, his time up until now has been dominated by an upgrade of the AOC Web site, which was relaunched last week.

The boosted site -- which includes a mass of historical and athlete data -- was co-developed by Sydney company Fforesite.

"Navigation is so much better now," said Vallino. "There used to be 50 links on the left-hand menu on the previous Web site. We still had a good news page, but didn't have a lot of structure."

"We also wanted to improve our branding capacity. Now we have a lot more broader interest items [on the site]. It's also a lot more patriotic -- you'll see our logo is very prominent across the site."

The relaunch is key to the AOC's media strategy, according to Vallino, with Turin the platform for securing as many eyeballs as possible.

"We want to be the first to get the news out and we want it to be on our Web site before anyone else," he said.

"We're not trying to necessarily beat the people who are there every day, but our intention is to supply as much information as possible, as quickly as possible."

The AOC has plenty of plans to develop the site further. One is delivery of a membership service that allows subscribers to tailor news to their chosen sports or athletes.

"Previously there was nothing there that allowed us to interact with the community. I tend to think of these things as an enterprise solution. When you get away from just stories and photos, it's really a shopfront for the organisation," Vallino opined.

Another will be a Turin Games sub-site, to which users will be redirected from the main site.

"We've always produced news while we're [working] in Australia, but with the new site want to promote and encourage people to come to the AOC as much as possible," Vallino said

"Everyone in Australia will have an interest in it."

Man of the moment
While his colleagues will shaking the snow off their boots in Turin, Vallino himself will be watching the performance of his technology with bated breath from Sydney.

The IT manager's role was created after an internal review of the AOC's technology needs was conducted by the organisation's general manager, sport, Fiona de Jong early this year. Vallino joined the organisation in May.

The new IT manager said the review identified the AOC needed to employ someone who was more skilled in information management than the nuts and bolts of maintaining an IT shop.

"They wanted someone who could utilise [information] so they could access it more easily, and they wanted someone who could oversee all the business groups and their needs," Vallino said.

His background as head of business intelligence at Challenger Financial Services -- and his keen interest in sports -- meant he fit the bill. Vallino in turn saw opportunities to make a difference.

"There was the opportunity for a lot of improvement in the systems and the development of a new Web site was a big attraction," he said.

However, the role also came with a few less technical challenges. Part of Vallino's role is elevating the priority afforded to technology by the organisation, meaning staff whose tasks are not necessarily technology-based must get involved.

Vallino must also coordinate a number of suppliers. Network support is provided by Australian integrator Volante, database development is done by New Zealand services company DataTalk, and servers are hosted in Atlanta by Interland.

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