In a few weeks, on May 21st, the IOF will celebrate its 60th anniversary. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the celebrations will need to be pretty low-key and will have to wait. Hopefully, we can celebrate later in the year.
But 2021 is also a milestone year for another feature of the IOF. It is now 25 years ago since the digital presence of the IOF started. The domain orienteering.org was established and very first IOF website was introduced in 1996. Finn Arildsen, one of the members of the then IOF High Tech Group and initial founders of the website, still remains in the IOF organisation. Now as a member of the IOF IT Commission. We asked Finn about some of the history of the website and his reflections about where this has taken us.
– How did the idea for an IOF website come about?
In the early nineties, the Internet was already well-known technology, though there were no broadband connections – data communication was all via low-speed telephone lines. Web technology was emerging fast after its initial introduction, and everyone were using primitive web browsers.
The IOF had been offering IT solutions for some years, for example event calendars and World Cup score applications. These solutions were all off-line, based on exchanging physical data media (floppy disks).
Internal and external IOF communication was still based on physical mail (via the post) and telefax. It seemed an obvious advantage for the IOF to go “digital” and benefit from electronic communication. Using web technology, the existing IT solutions could also go on-line.
In general, orienteers are curious by nature and keen to explore technology. So already, a number of orienteering related websites (or homepages) were being published by individuals and orienteering clubs, providing (in good faith) information of varying quality. The IOF obviously needed an official website to publish reliable information and for communication with member federations.
Although visionaries did predict that the internet would soon obsolete television, being able to publish on-line results and broadcast live video streaming over the internet were only future dreams…
– How were the ideas received by the IOF Council and organisation?
Initially, somewhat reluctantly. This was new territory, and the consequences were difficult to grasp. Was this Internet thing just a toy for university people? Would the use of electronic communication disadvantage member federations from countries with less developed infrastructure? At the same time, international sports organisations such as GAISF were also exploring their options for using web technology. Should the IOF have its own website or should it go with a common effort under GAISF?
Eventually, it was agreed that the IOF should have its own website, and the orienteering.org domain name was secured, as iof.org and orienteering.com had already been taken.
– What were the key targets of the initial website in content and design?
Primarily, the initial goal was to establish a digital presence, bringing on-line as much information as possible. There were no design tools, so everything had to be hand crafted, and the visual appearance was accordingly amateurish. Volunteers from the then IOF High Tech Group built up and maintained the website for the first few years. Eventually, the IOF brought in a professional designer, and the office staff gradually took over the daily work. The website has gone through a tremendous journey to the professional state it has today.
– If you reflect upon what effect the website (and the internet and digitalisation at all) has had on the IOF and orienteering, what would you raise as the key positives, and maybe negatives?
Bringing on-line an IOF website was one among many early steps in the digitalization of our sport. A lot has happened since then. Digital services of different kinds, such as for mapping, course planning, punching, results, etc. are now used throughout the life cycle of almost any competition. The IOF involvement in bringing orienteering on-line has contributed significantly to making orienteering visible to a wider audience. Who can almost imagine today that results, maps and courses from an important competition would not be available on-line, live, while the competition is going on?
Digitalisation has had a huge impact on the way we organize competitions, but fortunately it has been possible to keep the essence of the sport intact – we are still alone with a map and a compass when navigating a course. With further technical advances, we shall probably see new competition formats; during the pandemic we have already seen eOrienteering and virtual orienteering increase in popularity. Both are made possible by digitalization.
Of course, one downside effect of digitalization is increased complexity. This means that more skilled people are required when organising competitions. Also, digitalization has not, as some optimists predicted, eliminated all human errors, just introduced new ones.
Thank you Finn for your insights into the digitalisation of the IOF and for your contributions to the IOF for many years. It will be really interesting to see where technology takes our sport in the next 25 years.