Staging the Olympic Games is one of the most complex peace-time operations in the world: The 16 days of competition require at least 7 years of preparation beforehand and about a year afterward to break it all down.

During this period, those working for each city’s Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (OCOG) collect a huge amount of data about the planning and delivery of the Games. This accumulated knowledge has immense value both for the Olympic movement and for future organizers. Not only does it support the successful planning and delivery of each edition of the Games, but it also helps each successive OCOG to develop its own vision, to understand how a host city and its citizens can benefit from the long-lasting impact and legacy of the Games, and to manage the opportunities and risks created.

Since 2000, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has developed an increasingly structured approach toward data collection and analysis, as Chris Payne, Associate Director of Information, Knowledge, and Games Learning at the IOC, explains: 

“I actually like to refer to small data as opposed to big data, in the sense that most of what we want relates to people and how they work in a Games environment. At the Information, Knowledge, and Games Learning (IKL) unit, we anticipate collecting about 1TB of data from primary sources. Additionally, there is a significant amount we aggregate from the OCOG, comprising over 400 datasets. We also reach out to 50-plus functional areas for additional datasets and usually get several hundred of those.”

All of this data is integral to learning and knowledge management.“While data and analytics are nothing new to the Olympics — they’ve been used in some form or another for many, many years — what is new is the importance of using data to manage the evolving changing models for delivery of the Games,” Chris says.

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Using data to create a more modern Olympics

London 2012 signaled the start of the Games organizers evolving the way they collect and manage data.

“We’ve had a growing realization that we need to measure the Games more precisely so that we can manage it more effectively going forward,” Chris says. “Our Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi has a very strong belief in the notion that we can’t properly manage an Olympic event unless we can measure it.”

To this end, the IOC set up the IKL unit within its technology and information department. The mission of IKL is “to promote and stimulate both innovative and integrated learning related to the delivery of the Olympic Games.” Among IKL’s key principles are that knowledge is the IOC’s most critical business asset and that every individual working with the IOC is a knowledge worker with a right to access quality knowledge from multiple information sources.

“At IKL, with strong support from our CIO, Ilario Corna, we have been doing a lot more structured capture of data, as well as aggregating a number of datasets from the organizing committee,” Chris says. “To support the Games, there are a huge number of different systems in use. We focus on the core games management systems, which generate a lot of key operational data, so we’ve been naturally a lot more inquisitive of those datasets. We are focused on unpicking them, really analyzing them to understand what they tell us about Games optimization.”

The results have been highly valuable. “Athletes and sports are the heart of the Games, and the competition schedule drives everything around the event. So one area we are trying to get a better understanding of is venue operations: when the different stakeholder groups are going and how the different venue spaces are used, for example.”

This means Chris and his team are tracking things like occupancy numbers and traffic volumes, as well as the use of certain technologies in those spaces. “We have a Technology Operations Centre that is constantly monitoring all key Games systems,” Chris continues. “We get access, post-Games, to the ticket data to analyze any patterns in terms of incidents and responses.” 

This is important because it will help future OCOGs understand how to better plan the services at the venue level. Descriptive analytics also help them understand the number of athletes and workers required to support that specific competition or sport.

“From a venue planning perspective, having a good understanding of when the peak periods of operations are, and how the back-of-house venue spaces are used, will help better design, scope, and deliver the right-sized venues,” Chris adds. “We are also working to factor in the COVID impact when making sense of the data and, more importantly, when communicating it.”

Chris and his team are increasing the volume of data being captured and using automation to augment their data strategy: “This is a real jump forward for us. We are working with a number of key partners who are placing sensors in key locations to capture a range of different datasets. We are also building an analytics engine that will see us able to do far more sophisticated analytics than we have been able to do in the past.”

This analytics engine will process both structured and unstructured data. “We are constantly collecting data from all kinds of different sources — whether it is a library of documents, analytics reports, pictures, or even videos,” says Chris. “Merging structured and unstructured data sources will be incredibly useful when it comes to debriefing key stakeholders on what has or hasn’t worked in the past, allowing them to pause and reflect on how they might do things differently in the future.”

Capturing the moments that matter

By building an analytics engine, the IOC also hopes to create what it calls “analytics moments” for its key Games owners that will see data being integrated into workflows to empower nontechnical team members to make smarter, data-driven decisions without the support of technical teammates.

“This democratization of data will be a real game changer for us,” Chris says. “You have to show people what good looks like if you want to improve their data literacy journey. When you see those lightbulb moments, it is incredibly satisfying.”

The IOC is also involving key stakeholders from the various organizing committees in its data capture processes, to ensure that the data provided is not only useful, but adequately understood.

“We’ve invited them to tell us in their specific context what types of data are particularly important for them,” Chris says. “It’s important to understand that the Olympic Games are extremely multicultural and that there are different needs in every territory. We want to serve these different needs as effectively as possible.”

Chris’ passion around this is evident. “From an operational data analytics perspective, I would describe Tokyo 2020 as a coming of age Games,” he says. “I’m really quite excited about what can be achieved.”

Data will create a better-connected future

The future Games, Chris says, is even more exciting: “LA, for example, has some super-connected venues. There are some amazing opportunities to get incredibly granular analytics from the venues there.”

Data from technologically advanced connected venues (with powerful Wi-Fi systems, Internet of Things sensors, and more), Chris believes, will lead to a major transformation in how the Games are delivered and will provide more opportunities for learning going forward.

“The way the different stadia in Los Angeles deliver services to the people actually in the venues consuming sports events locally is fantastic. By engaging very early with the LA organizing committee, we can benefit from some of their experience in professional sports.”

In fact, the IOC is currently undertaking a series of workshops in LA to really understand the different data partnerships that it needs to build in order to optimize the opportunities when LA hosts in 2028.

“We’re working with a lot of colleagues and many years in advance to try to ensure that when we get to 2028, we can really make the very best use of automation and also leverage the promise of real-time analytics,” Chris says. “By getting real-time analytics into its main operations center, key stakeholders can adjust service levels on an hourly basis and consequently improve the efficiency of our whole operation.”

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Lindsay James is a journalist and copywriter with over 20 years’ experience writing for enterprise business audiences. She’s created copious copy for some of the world’s biggest companies and is a regular contributor to The RecordCompass, and IT Pro.

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