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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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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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