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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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Gadget goes to Hollywood

Gadget visited the Netflix studios last week. In the first of a series, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK talks to CEO Reed Hastings.

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Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is no stranger to Africa. He has travelled throughout South Africa, taught maths in Swaziland for two years with the Peace Corps, and visits close family in Maputo. As a result, he is keenly aware of the South African entertainment and connectivity landscape.

In an exclusive interview at the Netflix studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, last week, he revealed that Netflix had no intentions of challenging MultiChoice’s dominance of live sports broadcasting on the continent.

“Other firms will do sport and news; we are trying to focus on movies and TV shows,” he said. “There are a lot of areas that are video that we are not doing: sports, news, video gaming, user-generated content. We don’t have live sport.

Reed Hastings at the Netflix studios in Hollywood last week. Pic: ADAM ROSE

“We’re not replacing MultiChoice at all. Their subscriber growth is steady in South Africa. They serve a need that’s independent of the Internet, via low-price satellite. There is no intention of capturing that audience. If they’re growing, it’s because they serve a need.”

While Reed ruled out any collaboration with MultiChoice on its satellite delivery platform, despite its collaboration with another pay-TV service, Sky TV in the United Kingdom, he did not close the door. He stressed that Netflix saw itself as an Internet-based service, and would pursue the opportunities offered by evolving broadband in Africa.

“If you look in other markets like the USA, how Comcast carries us on set-top boxes with their other services, it could happen with MultiChoice, the same as with all the pay-TV providers.

“We’re really focused on being a service over the Internet and not over satellite. Our service doesn’t work on satellite. Where we work with Sky is on Internet-connected devices. We’re happy to work on Internet-connected devices. We tend to work on smart TVs, but need broadband Internet for that.

“Broadband is getting faster in Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa – we can see the positive trendlines – so it’s more likely we will work with broadband Internet companies.”

Hastings is a firm believer in the idea that one content provider’s success does not depend on pushing another down.

“HBO has grown at the same time as we have, so can see our success doesn’t determine their success. What matters is amazing content with which the world falls in love.”

Click here to read on about Hastings’ views on international expansion, and how the streaming service selects content for its platform.

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Take these 5 steps to digital

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By MARK WALKER, Associate Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

Digital transformation isn’t a buzz word because it sounds nice and looks good on the business CV. It is fundamental to long-term business success. IDC anticipates that 75% of enterprises will be on the path to digital transformation by 2027. 

However, digital transformation is not a process that ticks a box and moves to the next item on the agenda – it is defined by the organisation’s shift towards a digitally empowered infrastructure and employee. It is an evolution across system, infrastructure, process, individual and leadership and should follow clear pathways to ensure sustainable success.

The nature of the enterprise has changed completely with the influence of digital, cloud and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and success is reliant on strategic change.

There is a lot more ownership and transparency throughout the organisation and there is a responsibility that comes with that – employees want access to information, there has to be speed in knowledge, transactions and engagement. To ensure that the organisation evolves alongside digital and demand, it has to follow five very clear pathways to long-term, achievable success.

The first of these is to evaluate where the enterprise sits right now in terms of its digital journey. This will differ by organisation size and industry, as well as its reliance on technology. A smaller organisation that only needs a basic accounting function or the internet for email will have far different considerations to a small organisation that requires high-end technology to manage hedge funds or drive cloud solutions. The same comparisons apply to the enterprise-level organisation. The mining sector will have a completely different sub-set of technology requirements and infrastructure limitations to the retail or finance sectors.

Ultimately, every organisation, regardless of size or industry, is reliant on technology to grow or deliver customer service, but their digital transformation requirements are different. To ensure that investment into artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, knowledge engines, automation and connectivity are accurately placed within the business and know exactly where the business is going.

The second step is to examine what the business wants to achieve. Again, the goals of the organisation over the long and short term will be entirely sector dependent, but it is essential that it examine what the competitive environment looks like and what influences customer expectations. This understanding will allow for the business to hone its digital requirements accordingly.

The third step is to match expectations to reality. You need to see how you can move your digital transformation strategy forward and what areas require prioritisation, what funding models will support your digital aspirations, and how this tie into what the market wants. Ultimately, every step of the process has to be prioritised to ensure it maps back to where you are and the strategic steps that will take you to where you want to go.

The fourth step is to look at the operational side of the process. This is as critical as any other aspect of the transformation strategy as it maps budget to skills to infrastructure in such a way as to ensure that any project delivers return on investment. Budget and funding are always top of mind when it comes to digital transformation – these are understandably key issues for the business. How will it benefit from the investment? How will it influence the customer experience? What impact will this have on the ongoing bottom line? These questions tie neatly into the fifth step in the process – the feedback loop.

This is often the forgotten step, but it is the most important. The feedback loop is critical to ensuring that the digital transformation process is achieving the right results, that the right metrics are in place, and that the needle is moving in the right direction. It is within this feedback loop that the organisation can consistently refine the process to ensure that it moves to each successive step with the right metrics in place.

There is also one final element that every organisation should have in place throughout its digital evolution. An element that many overlook – engagement. There must be a real desire to change, from the top of the organisation right down to the bottom, and an understanding of what it means to undertake this change and why it is essential. This is why this will be a key discussion at the 2019 IDC South Africa CIO Summit taking place in April this year. With this in place, the five steps to digital transformation will make sense and deliver the right results.

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