• Taming dust

    Date:21 February 2018 Author: Lindsey Schutters Tags:

    The ABSA Cape Epic is eight unforgiving days in the saddle – and is the original stage race to stream live footage from out in the field, thanks to Dimension Data.

    With the 2018 ABSA Cape Epic around the corner, we take a look back at last year’s event, where Lindsey Schutters visited the Oak Valley race village to find out more about how Didata came in to revolutionise race coverage. 

    From an aircraft, everything looks peaceful. Meanwhile, the airspace below the Bell 206L is turbulent with data. Dimension Data specialises in dealing with information coming from a cycle race. The company’s management of Tour de France 2016 saw 127,8 million data records processed in the cloud. Tracking 198 riders in 22 teams that generate 42 000 geospacial points and 75 million GPS readings in no easy task.

    That data then had to be interpreted to the 17,8 million viewers on the website at a rate of 2 000 page requests per second. Live tracking one of the most watched sporting events on the planet is one thing, but relaying the raw data in an entertaining way is a completely different thing. And that’s what Dimension Data is trying to do: tell stories with data.

    We’re not in Europe, though. Here at Oak Valley estate in the Western Cape Overberg, you can barely get a 3G signal. It’s the finish line for stages 4 and 5 of the 2017 Absa Cape Epic and the area around the race village is an oak and pine forest. The Elgin Valley is a great place for growing fruit, but terrible for broadcasting live from a mountain bike stage race.

    The man expected to achieve the impossible task of getting the information from the race out into the world is Wolf Stinnes and he has an interesting track record. He heads up Didata’s so-called Black Ops team in Cape Town and it is safe to say he has a thing for sport. That interest led the company’s involvement in building five of the seven stadiums for the 2010 football World Cup. Well before the Internet of Things was coined as a buzzword, he helped fit smart building solutions to sports stadiums.

    “We only got here this morning and it’s a move day so there’s always chaos,” says Stinnes from a very well constructed stage. “This is our third year with the Absa Cape Epic and those race fans who can remember back in 2014 will know that there was no news coming out of the race, just delayed footage on a SuperSport packaged show.” The story about how Didata came in to revolutionise race coverage is that the founder of the Cape Epic and the regional head of Didata met on a mountain bike trail. One of them had a mechanical.

    “If we were an enterprise setting up operations to connect everything that we have here, it would be a 10-day normal working hour exercise. We had about 48 hours. At Elandskloof we had about 36 hours because someone was still getting married. On a build site we have about 20 people all told and they rig up all the infrastructure that you see here,” he explains. That infrastracture is built on an enterprise-class fibre ring around the camp, coming from the media centre that is the heart of the operation. Reconnaissance happens about a year prior with decisions on how to bring in the infrastructure that doesn’t yet exist coming soon after. But this is Cape Town and conditions can change at any time.

    Data is transferred via a 200 Mbps uncontended international link up and down (provided by Didata subsidiary Internet Solutions) to service the media and to keep critical services running. “In addition to that link to service the higher volume times like all the TV broadcasts that go over our network, we establish a 70-megabyte satelite. Having done this for a several years we’ve established a number of things. Firstly, Cisco switches can withstand 85 degrees in the Sun. But generally we get tripped up by one of two things: power failures and power spikes.”

    About 36 hours before the media visit, estate management called to say that the organisation had broken one of the tractors. What happened was that the lawnmower went over one of the fibre streams, which then wrapped around the machine. In 2015 the event organisers insisted on 200 wired points, but most of the village is now connected wirelessly. Around 1 pm there had already been 322 visitors on the network. Stinnes explains that weekends and public holidays bring many people who do software updates on the event Wi-Fi.

    In 2015 the event live broadcast was from a static GoPro mounted on the finish line. Then 2016 allowed video teams to move through the race village and 2017 sees high-quality livestream over the Internet from around eight in the morning until lunchtime.

    The 2016 prologue was also the world’s first mountain bike live footage streamed to TV. That footage was shot from an e-bike following the action. Now there are two helicopters alongside the four e-bikes doing the entire race.

    The biggest breakthrough in the IoT space, however, is the GSM-based units that the riders are issued with. Those units allow for live tracking of riders and facilitate quicker response times from emergency personnel. It also has a by-product of raw data that can be analysed and added to race information to tell a better story. All of that is now accesible through the app and also allows loved ones to track specific athletes.

    The air is truly thick with data at the Absa Cape Epic and constant innovation means that it can be converted into better stories of courage and endurance of the human spirit, bringing spectators that much closer to breathing the dust.

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