A do-it-yourself online service means builders can trace tools in seconds, says George Cole
When architect Graham Walker wants to find the right brick or tile, he switches on his PC and looks up an index of more than 5,500 building products suppliers. He clicks on a supplier's name, and within minutes, its full product catalogue, complete with high-quality pictures and text, is on his computer.

Walker is using a system called On Demand Construction Information, which has been entered for the Independent award for the most innovative business use of multimedia at the Multimedia 96 show. ODCI has been developed by Leeds-based company On Demand Information, which supplies more than 1,000 companies with online information.

Online services aren't new, but ODI's system has a number of novel features. It uses BT's high-speed ISDN2 digital telephone system to deliver a mix of sound, pictures, text, graphics and animation. "As far as businesses are concerned, time is money; the key is to make it easy for them to find what they need," says Graham Poulter, ODI's executive chairman.

Some companies are using the Internet as an online information service, but ODI's system offers benefits above it. The ISDN system can transfer data at up to 128,000 bits per second, compared with less than 30,000 bits for the fastest telephone modem. But even this comparison is deceptive, because ODI has developed a proprietary high-speed compression system that enables, for example, several high resolution colour images to be downloaded in around one minute. If you tried doing the same thing on the Internet, you could have a three-course meal and do the washing-up before the images arrive.

Another advantage is that all searching is done offline, so there are no telephone charges as you hunt for the right company or product: "Some companies ban employees from using the Internet because it can be expensive and time consuming," says Poulter.

ODCI works on a bog-standard 486PC with 8Mb of RAM. At ODI's headquarters, construction information is stored on a Unix computer system that can hold up to 80 gigabytes of data (roughly equivalent to 80 PC hard disks). The ODCI database consists of 225,000 pages of information, and more than 5,000 industry professionals access around 80,000 pages a month. Companies pay a monthly rental charge for the ISDN line, and a fee for information they use.

Graham Walker is a partner at the Peterborough Design Group, which has used ODCI for more than a year: "Building projects use lots of different products and there are masses of regulations to comply with. If you tried storing all the information on-site, it would take an awful lot of space. You also need the most up-to-date information," he says.

If an ODCI user puts the downloaded data into a special job file, the system automatically checks to see if it holds the latest information and sends updates if required. If you are looking at a catalogue, you can click on a screen icon and the PC automatically dials the company. A conferencing facility allows two companies using the ODCI system to look at the same information on their screens simultaneously.

Shortlisted nominations for the 'Independent' award will be on view at the BIMA Awards Showcase and Unipalm Pipex stands at Multimedia 96, 18-20 June at the Business Design Centre, London. For details, contact 0171-288 6408. Fax back 0171-288 6407. E-mail: http://www. bdcevents.co.uk/multimedia96/. ODI: 0113-233 0000. British International Multimedia Association: 01733 245700.