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SA winner in Tour de France

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When South African-educated Chris Froome won his fourth Tour de France cycle race on Sunday, it was an indirect win for local fans. But South Africa will play a far more direct role as the technology behind the race is transformed in the coming years, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When the Tour de France cycling saga ended in Paris on Sunday, more statistics, predictions and analysis had been shared than in any other cycle race in history. A mind-boggling mountain of information, comprising 3-billion data points, allowed fans, teams and the media to analyse the race in ways that were inconceivable just three years ago.

That’s when the race owners, Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), called in South African company Dimension Data to help it prepare for the future of sports coverage and to meet the growing needs of fans.

“Cycling is trending at the moment all over the globe; people who used to have golf club roof racks now have cycle racks,” says Dimension Data senior marketing manager of Celine Rousseau. “Fans are expecting information for free, right here right now, and watching reruns the next day is not sufficient anymore.

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Media frenzy around Chris Froome, ultimate winner of the Tour de France 2017, before Stage 13.
Photo: By Arthur Goldstuck

“Fans expect to be able to interact with their favourite riders, and social meida allows them to do that. They are also more interested in the transcendent moment in the race, like a crash or something spectacular happening, rather than the overall race.

“ASO also realised that fans, whether in a stadium or at the side of the road, have become their own little media houses by taking their own short videos of a race and posting it on digital platforms, bypassing ASO’s platforms and not providing the opportunity to get online advertising revenue.”

 

Fans film every moment of the Tour, becoming competitors to broadcasters. Photo: By Arthur Goldstuck

Fans film every moment of the Tour, becoming competitors to broadcasters.
Photo: By Arthur Goldstuck

Dimension Data, now a subsidiary of Japan’s NTT but still referring to itself as a South African company, had less than six months from its first meetings with ASO to delivering a digital platform for the 2015 Tour de France.

It won its own race in style. That year, for the first time, fans were able to view live videos from GoPro devices fitted to bikes, graphics showing live race data, a live-tracking website, and new race data being shared on social media. Most dramatic of all, however, was the broadcast of live speed data on television for the first time in cycling history.

By 2016, video views on digital platforms had climbed to 55-million, from just 6-million two years before. Fast forward to 2017, and Dimension Data introduced complex algorithms that analysed historical and live data to calculate the likelihood of real-time race events. Clearly, this is more than just being the official technology partner of the Tour de France – already a startling achievement for a South African business.

“I have a long history with partners, but this one is very special because it is not only a partner but co-producing the future of digital cycling,” says Yann Le Moenner, CEO of ASO.

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Team Dimension Data’s bicycles lined up on front of the team bus before the start of Stage 13.
Photo: By Arthur Goldstuck

The route to that future presents almost as many obstacles as the Tour itself.

Right now, the technology that has already transformed the race comprises a cellphone-sized device fitted to every bike in the race – 198 in the 2017 edition. It includes a battery, GPS receiver and Radio Frequency ID (RFID) transmitter tha tramnsits the location of each bike every second. The information is overlaid on data about the historic performance of each rider – in the race itself and in previous races – along with wind speed and direction, and road gradient.

Initially, there was some concern among some teams that the technology would provide rival teams with too much data about each rider. However, the teams have all come to appreciate the extent to which it has enhanced their preparation for each stage of the race, as well as their ability to adjust tactics almost by the minute.

Now Dimension Data is hoping to go one step further.

“We know the speed, gradient, wind conditions, and size of groups, so we are able to use machine learning to calculate the effort index of each rider,” says Peter Gray, senior director of technology at Dimension Data Global Sports Practice.  “For example, an index of 1 means he is still having coffee at the start, and10 means his head is about to explode. Most of the time we see an average effort of 5 out of 10, when they are cruising, and towards end it starts to ramp up.

Team Dimension Data manager Doug Ryder on one of the bicycles the Qhubeka charity is donating to school children across Africa

Team Dimension Data manager Doug Ryder on one of the bicycles the Qhubeka charity is donating to school children across Africa.
Photo: By Arthur Goldstuck

“It’s something we’ve developed and are testing internally, and starting to bring on line and share as we’re allowed to. We’ve begun sharing predictions around breakaway and stage predictions.

“The thing is that you can’t tell if an effort index of 8.8 means a rider is in strife or fatigued, because we don’t have biometric information. If he’s in great shape he could maintain that for a long time, and it doesn’t give other teams a competitive advantage to know it, as it would if you had biometrics on the ride.”

Biometric measurement would require all riders to wear heart-rate monitors and the like – which most already do, but only for the benefit of their own teams.  Teams would resist sharing such data initially, but ultimately it will probably become a feature of the race.

Other possibilities for the future are virtual reality and rider point of view experiences of the race.

It’s been a long ride from the first Tour de France in 1903, when the only form of coverage was a single newspaper. In many ways, then, the event mirrors the evolution of both sports technology and the media. And South African innovation is at the very heart of that evolution.

 

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Samsung unleashes the beast

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Most new smartphone releases of the past few years have been like cat-and-mouse games with consumers and each other. It has been as if morsels of cheese are thrown into the box to make it more interesting: a little extra camera here, a little more battery there, and incremental changes to size, speed (more) and weight (less). Each change moves the needle of innovation ever-so-slightly. Until we find ourselves, a few years later, with a handset that is revolutionary compared to six years ago, but an anti-climax relative to six months before.

And then came Samsung. Probably stung by the “incremental improvement” phrase that has become almost a cliché about new Galaxy devices, the Korean giant chose to unleash a beast last week.

The new Galaxy Note 9 is not only the biggest smartphone Samsung has ever released, but one of the biggest flagship handsets that can still be called a phone. With a 6.4” display, it suddenly competes with mini-tablets and gaming consoles, among other devices that had previously faced little contest from handsets.

It offers almost ever cutting edge introduced to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ smartphones earlier this year, including the market-leading f1.5 aperture lens, and an f2.4. telephoto lens, each weighing in at 12 Megapixels. The front lens is equally impressive, with an f1.7 aperture – first introduced on the Note 8 as the widest yet on a selfie camera.

So far, so S9. However, the Note range has always been set apart by its S Pen stylus, and each edition has added new features. Born as a mere pen that writes on screens, it evolved through the likes of pressure sensitivity, allowing for artistic expression, and cut-and-paste text with translation-on-the-fly.

(Click here or below to read more about the Samsung Galaxy S Pen stylus) Samsung Galaxy S9 Features)

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SA ride permit system ‘broken’

Despite the amendments to the National Land Transport Act, ALON LITS, General Manager, Uber in Sub Saharan Africa, believes that many premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

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The spirit and intention of the amendments to the National Land Transport Act No 5  (NLTA), 2009 put forward by the Ministry of Transport are to be commended. It is especially pleasing that these amendments include ridesharing and e-hailing operators and drivers as legitimate participants in the country’s public transport system, which point to government’s willingness to embrace the changes and innovation taking place in the country’s transport industry.

However, there are aspects of the proposed amendments that are, at best, premature given that the necessary, well-functioning systems and processes are not yet in place to make these regulatory changes viable.

Of particular concern are the significant financial penalties that will need to be paid by ridesharing and e-hailing companies whose independent operators are found to be transporting passengers without a legal permit issued by the relevant local authority. These fines can be as high as R100 000 per driver operating without a permit. Apart from being an excessive penalty it is grossly unfair given that a large number of local authorities don’t yet have functioning permit issuing systems and processes in place.

The truth is that the operating permit issuance system in South Africa is effectively broken. The application and issuance processes for operating licenses are fundamentally flawed and subject to extensive delays, sometimes over a year in length.  This situation is exacerbated by the fact that it is very difficult for applicants whose permit applications haven’t yet been approved to get reasons for the extensive delays on the issuing of those permits.

Uber has had extensive first-hand experience with the frustratingly slow process of applying for these permits, with drivers often having to wait months and, in some cases more than a year, for their permits.

Sadly, there appears to be no sense of urgency amongst local authorities to prioritise fixing the flawed permit issuing systems and processes or address the large, and growing, backlogs of permit applications. As such, in order for the proposed stringent permit enforcement rules to be effective and fair to all role players, the long-standing issues around permit issuance first need to be addressed. At the very least, before the proposed legislation amendments are implemented, the National Transport Ministry needs to address the following issues:

  1. Efficient processes and systems must be put in place in all local authorities to allow drivers to easily apply for the operating permits they require
  2. Service level agreements need to be put in place with local authorities whereby they are required to assess applications and issue permits within the prescribed 60-day period.
  3. Local authorities need to be given deadlines by which their current permit application backlogs must be addressed to allow for faster processing of new applications once the amendments are promulgated.

If the Transport Ministry implements the proposed legislation amendments before ensuring that these permit issuance challenges are addressed, many drivers will be faced with the difficult choice of either having to operate illegally whilst awaiting their approved permits and risking significant fines and/or arrest, or stopping operations until they receive their permits, thereby losing what is, for many of them, their only source of income.

As such, if the Ministry of Transport is not able to address these particular challenges, it is only reasonable to ask it to reconsider this amendment and delay its implementation until the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure it does not impact negatively on the country’s transport industry. The legislators must have been aware of the challenges of passing such a significant law, as the Amendment Bill allows for the Minister to use his discretion to delay implementation of provisions for up to 5 years.

Fair trade and healthy competition are the cornerstones of any effective and growing economy. However, these clauses (Section 66 (7) and Section 66A) of the NLTA amendment, as well as the proposal that regulators be given authority to define the geographic locations or zones in which vehicles may operate, are contrary to the spirit of both. As a good corporate citizen, Uber is committed to supplementing and enhancing South Africa’s national transport system and contributing positively to the industry. If passed into law without the revisions suggested above, these new amendments will limit our business and many others from playing the supportive roles we all can, and should, in growing the SA transport and tourism industries as well as many other key economic sectors.

What’s more, if passed as they currently stand, the amendments will effectively limit South African consumers from having full access to the range of convenient transport options they deserve; which has the potential to harm the reputation and credibility of the entire transport industry.

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