Scoring tries off the field

Scoring tries off the field

MIS scrums down with the technology team behind this month’s Rugby World Cup.

Shocks, surprises and disappointments – the hallmarks of the Rugby World Cup before even a game has been played. When New Zealand lost its sub-hosting rights because it couldn’t guarantee stadiums free of advertising, commentators described it as the “cock-up of the year”. Then there was the risk the All Blacks would be banned because 50 players hadn’t been signed by the deadline, the bonus payment disagreements, the International Rugby Board (IRB) slamming NZ officials for their “wholly inappropriate behaviour”, the impact of the Eichelbaum Report and ensuing changes to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU)’s representation on the IRB.

But while the shake-ups, spats, threats, resignations, ticket price shocks and selection anguish were hard to miss even for those allergic to sport, MIS has discovered a union between behind-the-scenes technology and teamwork helped get this major sporting tournament off the ground.

You are an avid rugby fan who has purchased tickets to several Rugby World Cup games as well as signing up for SMS score alerts from your mobile carrier – just for those games you cannot attend. You are at Telstra Stadium in Sydney as a try is scored, and a minute or so later, an SMS message arrives on your phone, notifying you of the fact.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” you think, not realising the data has performed what is nearly a trans-global miracle to get to you. Input by statisticians at the venue, the information has gone to a data centre in Sydney, been converted to XML format, sent to London to a company that services all the global telcos with SMS content, distributed to your particular mobile carrier and then sent to your phone, all inside 10 seconds or so.

While rugby fans around the world are glued to the cup’s showcase tournament and its 48 games over one month, a massive data operation is underway as complex as any training drill, as accurate as a precision series of passes.

Just as teams around the world have been building up to the tournament opening for years, the opening ceremony on October 10 will flick the switch on a data and information operation which, while not quite as big as the Sydney 2000 Olympics, is not that far behind.

To put the pieces in place has required a major effort from the Rugby World Cup (RWC) organisers, who have negotiated their requirements against the sponsorship and marketing needs of the International Rugby Board (IRB), which actually owns the tournament.

The result is, global outsourcer Unisys will continue as the main provider to the event, extending an association going back to 1991. The company’s RWC systems were tested at international rugby matches in Australia this year, with shadow testing by the RWC.

To fulfil particular needs, several smaller local players – such as Brisbane-based software provider Amlink – are joining the team to ‘backfill’ requirements the main supplier is unable to meet.

“Our involvement was to write the requirement documents outlining the pieces of software and service levels we need,” says Eddie Moore, head of tournament services and deputy general manager for the RWC event.

Moore, who has been working on the event since January 2001, has assembled a team with experience in some of the biggest world sporting events in recent years, such as the Sydney Olympics, Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the Goodwill Games.

“We did the timeline, saying we need these pieces of the puzzle put in place at this stage against these requirements,” he says.

“So we made a shopping list, if you like, and through the IRB – which was selling marketing and sponsorships – we did some negotiations as the front-end user.”

Tenders for vendors

Sponsorship and marketing created, at the highest level, a slightly different process for selecting a vendor. Telstra, for example, is a key sponsor and a provider of the cable network. Unisys has had a relationship with rugby since 1991, but that didn’t stop Moore and his team from considering a number of other providers.

“It’s a bit of a bargaining exercise in understanding what we really needed and, in certain cases, the timing of various sponsorship agreements that were out there didn’t meet our operational requirements, so we’ve gone to tender on certain items,” says Moore. “We’ve said, ‘That’s what we need, we need it delivered now, so how are we going to go ahead and do that?’”

One area where immediate action needed to be taken was the accreditation software to be used by all the teams, officials and the 4000-strong media contingent.

The IRB had a relationship with a company that could provide this, but it didn’t suit the RWC timing, so they went to tender. Brisbane-based Amlink, which had an off-the-shelf system for conference accreditation was selected, and tailored its offering to meet RWC requirements.

None of the IRB partners stepped up in the areas of printers, faxes and copiers, so that was also put out to commercial tender and won by Danka.

“We were looking for a tournament-wide level of service but, at the same time, rationalising it for local conditions and what’s really required on the ground,” says Moore.

While Moore does not believe in dropping service standards, there is room, he thinks, for flexibility around how those standards are delivered.

“It’s often more about the physical side of the delivery than the timing. For example, in getting half-time statistics to a journalist in the press box, you might have to bring in five more photocopiers and re-cable the building, or you might rethink and put on a few more runners to still get the product to the client without overdoing the technology.”

Getting results

In many ways, says Moore, the RWC is much simpler than athletics meetings with lots of events.

“For example, in the men’s 100 metres at the Olympics there are 10 heats in 20 minutes, so there’s results flying around the place and copies of results going to people in rooms all over the place,” he says.

“Whereas we have got one match where at half-time everybody is getting the same results, but our complexity comes from the fact that we use multiple venues. In Launceston, for example, you’ve got a one-off game in a venue where there’s very little pre- and post-match activity, so you have to ask what requirements you need down there.”

Moore says it’s up to Unisys to deliver, but it’s his job to advise them and feed the tournament requirements. And, while the RWC is an end-user, it has to ensure its own end users – such as members of the international press – are adequately catered for.

“Our priorities are accuracy first, and then timely delivery,” says Moore.

“It’s understanding the nature of the beast; whether it’s getting a flash quote from the tunnel from one of the team captains or whatever – we’ve got a process in place where we can take that and get it out to the journalists. It’s understanding their timelines in filing stories and how to get that to them quickly, both electronically and hard copy, catering for those who are on immediate deadlines and following that up with quality information later on, so they can give it more depth. Journalists are one of our major client groups and if they’re not happy, we’ll know about it straight away.”

No moving goalposts

At Unisys, RWC project director Antony Harrowell says his job is to keep the RWC happy, and this will be reflected in his company meeting key performance indicators in the requirements documents – and for the IRB and the RWC to sign off on those after the event.

“We’ve got one shot at it and there’s no room for negotiation or the moving of time frames,” says Harrowell.

“The tournament starts on 10 October whether we’re ready or not. If we’re not ready it has dire consequences for ourselves as an organisation.”

Unisys is providing everything from statistics, data capture during matches, an intranet and extranet environment for journalists and outputs for SMS, WAP and information for the soon-to-be-launched official tournament website. Two dedicated statisticians, who are Unisys subcontractors, will key information into Tablet PCs during a match, and this will be sent to a graphics unit in an outside broadcast vehicle operated by the host broadcaster.

A series of graphic templates have been created, and the information sent by the statisticians (under the control of the broadcast producers) will populate those fields.

That data will also be fed back to a Unisys data centre in Sydney, where it will be processed and sent back out to 300 terminals installed around the match venues. These terminals will be locked down to a dedicated URL and won’t require any accreditation to access.

They will deliver both ‘live’ match data and provide access to an extensive historical database containing virtually every international rugby statistic going back to 1871.

This intranet will also include a selection of wire service stories and flash quotes for use by the journalists.

“From the time the statistician enters something on a table to the time it shows up at a terminal at the match will be a 10-second turnaround,” says Harrowell.

Statistics will also be produced, in hard copy, at half-time and at full-time and will be distributed to a variety of locations – such as VIP boxes and to the press – by teams of runners at the match.

Data will additionally be fed to another contracted operator, providing the video screen display at the venues.

“There is also an extranet environment for those people who can’t get to Australia, with about 1500 users, and they’ll all have to be accredited and issued with user IDs and passwords,” says Harrowell.

“We’ve segregated that environment completely for security reasons, so there’s no way somebody can come in remotely and back into our core.”

Another data feed is to UK company TWI, which has the contract to provide SMS and WAP content to telecommunications carriers around the world.

The final destination for the data is with the official website providers, set to be announced in coming weeks.

Supporting all this is a Sydney data centre with a Unisys 7000 enterprise server, a 16-way machine partitioned into four, and also another 12 web servers – six for the intranet and six for the extranet to be used by remote users.

During tournament time, Unisys will have a staff of 150 dedicated to the event, both at the data centre and at the venues.

Continuity testing

With so much riding on the event, and with the company’s reputation on the line, Unisys has an extensive business continuity plan in place, tested over the four international test matches played in Australia earlier this year.

“We have replicated every piece of equipment that will be there and we’ve tested it over the dedicated WAN infrastructure, which is the dedicated tournament network,” Harrowell says.

“We’ve tested what will happen if we lose servers, the event server on site, and tested all the business continuity at the back end. In the event of catastrophic failure, we’ve also tested the data centre environment as well, and we do have another option if we lose the data centre. There’s a test environment in a completely different location, and that is what would be switched over and become production under that environment.”

So with the tournament fast approaching, all the pieces of the IT puzzle are in place and both Unisys and the RWC are confident there will be no dropped passes or missed place kicks.

Journalists and fans throughout the world are likely to receive the information on their computers, television screens and mobile phones, little suspecting the intricate infrastructure behind the operation.

“We’re taking the experience of major sporting events and applying them to our tournament,” says RWC’s Moore. “It might not have the event complexity of the Olympics, but we have four matches on day two, for example, and these present their own challenges.”

So if you’re at a RWC game, watching the video screen and receiving SMS updates on your phone, spare a thought for the effort that has gone in behind the scenes in data and information.

It has required as much preparation, planning and teamwork as any of the leading challengers for the cup itself.

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