The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
— Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle

One of the most transformative trends of the last decade has been the shift from inside-out to outside-in thinking. It can be applied to almost any industry or area of expertise. Think, for example, about technology innovation. Up until recently, new ideas and inventions were the province of internal business and technology teams. Research and development funds and resources would be sunk into various teams and programs – some official and others operating in the shadows. Eventually these ideas would emerge as new products. As innovation made flesh (or wires or software). But over the last decade this has shifted. With more open platforms like Salesforce1, the growth of developer communities for software platforms from SAP to Marketo, Jive to Atlassian, innovation has breached the firewall and has taken on a life of its own.

The combination of open-ish platforms and abundant data is creating new opportunities for businesses and their customers alike. But the benefits are not limited to an in-your-face direct-to-your-phone coupon or BOGOF offer. By combining technology and matching it to human behaviour, we are beginning to explore a whole new world of experiences. And the testing ground for this innovation is not a lab in the middle of the Nevada Desert, but right here, at one of Australia’s largest sporting events – the Australian Open Tennis.

IBM and the Australian Open Tennis have been partners for decades. Many years ago, my extended team worked on IBM’s large scale sports events like the Olympics, NBA, Super Bowl and the Australian Open – so I had the opportunity to see – from the inside – how the technology and services were brought together. There has been a lot of water under the bridge in that time, so when I was invited to go “behind the scenes” and learn how things had changed, I jumped at the chance.

As has always been the case, the technology and services that IBM provides are deeply embedded in the running of the event.  But it’s not just the outward facing systems and technology. These days, the technology and business process integration taps into the way that the grand slam tournament is run and reported – it’s “hard wired” or should I say “wirelessly” into the fabric of the business, event management and fan experience. This partnership stretches from the electronic impulses of the web to the real time provisioning of servers, to the deployment of onsite security personnel, management of player timetables and grand slam rules and the amplification of fan experiences via social media.

Big Data on the Centre Court

Ian Wong from IBM’s interactive experiences team stepped the technology through its paces, revealing court data for each of the games. There were enough high level statistics to excite the armchair observer – from fastest serve to win ratios and more. All of this data was being captured by a combination of on-court technology and human observation. The umpire’s scoring PDA  fed directly into the system, managing scoring, counting strokes and helping to keep the games moving to time. High up in the stands were also other observers who were cross-checking and monitoring the on-court action.

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The data capture sounds impressive – to a point – but the big data activity underlying is where it becomes fascinating. Each game, each point, each stroke is captured and stored. This information is then processed and analysed – and builds upon the same data going back over eight years. This massive data store allows the IBM team and Australian Open to profile players and particular matches and to use a matching algorithm to unlock the “keys to the match”.

For example, say Martina Hingis was playing Serena Williams. The system could pull all previous match data and reveal aspects of match play that each had to achieve in order to win. The “keys to the match” could be “successful first serve 76% of the time” or “serving to the opponent’s backhand 65% of the time for second serves” and so on. Interestingly, this information and analytics power is made available to coaches and players through interactive panels – though not to the general public.

From off-court big data to real world big data

While the spectacle of on-court action is the drawcard, in true “Society of the Spectacle” form, a just as important aspect of the Australian Open Tennis is the fan experience. Tennis Australia CIO, Samir Mahir, has put together a massive sense and respond network that not only connects fans – it responds to their needs – matching expectation and demand with services and resources just-in-time. As Samir explained, “it’s about getting more people to come to the Tennis”.

Ingeniously, providing free wifi for all attendees means that fans are always connected – with a fat pipe of data ready and available at all times. AusOpen have established “Selfie Zones” around the stadium where people are encouraged to take photos and share via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And when tagged, can be displayed on the big screens on the centre court for all to see.

But this is just the start of the big data story. As people move around the stadium, routers count the number of connections to wifi points of presence. This data is then fed in real time to the logistics engines which can determine whether there are sufficient security personnel, adequate ticketing booths open and available or enough food and drink vendors in the right location. If necessary, food and drink or security personnel are notified and redeployed to ensure levels of service and safety are maintained across the massive complex.

Similarly, social media is monitored for volume and velocity. This information is then crunched by IBM’s Watson natural language processor. Realising that an increase in social media activity creates increased demand on the AusOpen website, IBM is then able to use social media velocity to predict and trigger on-demand webserver provisioning.

From sport to sportacular

By placing the fan – the consumer of sport – at the centre of the tennis experience, IBM and the Australian Open are transforming what was once a spectator event to a “sportacular”. They are combining and showcasing the gladiatorial contest on court, the preparations on the practise courts and an experience for fans that connects the location and their own experience in an event that is part of a global grand slam series.

In an instant these messages, are captured, multiplied, beamed around the world and brought back to the individual one selfie at a time.

The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.
— De Bord, Society of the Spectacle.

Note: travel and accommodation were courtesy of IBM.