by Mark Chillingworth

CIO Profile: Olympics CIO Gerry Pennell aims for personal best

Jul 18, 20125 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

See also: Gerry Pennell on creating a gold-standard team

Just as an athlete who has achieved success at the Commonwealth Games would grasp the opportunity to take on the wider world at the Olympics, so is it with Gerry Pennell, CIO for the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Locog).

Director of technology when the Commonwealth sporting festival was held in Manchester in 2002, Pennell picked up the London Olympic technology torch in 2008.

The Manchester velodrome, built for those games, has gone on to become the home base of Britain’s successful cycling team, and fittingly CIO met with Pennell at the Olympic Park velodrome in Newham, east London.

The job of delivering the 2012 Olympic Games is shared between two organisations: the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) and Locog.

The ODA has overseen the construction of the park and the other permanent and semi-permanent venues, while Locog is charged with organising the Olympic and Paralympic Games themselves.

“Our job is to put the Games on. We are private sector-funded through revenue streams such as broadcasting rights, sponsorship, ticketing, licensing and merchandising,” says Pennell.

“My biggest job is to measure the athletic competition and then to distribute the results. The key groups we have to support are the sports themselves and the reportage, the telling of the story of the Games.

“After the timing and scoring, the next layer is the on-venue results system. This knows the progression of the game, such as whether it’s a semi-final. It takes results data for the scoreboards, TV commentators and to a central results distribution system.

It also circulates all the information on the athletes such as whether their time is a personal best or a world record,” he explains.

Atos has been supplying the Olympicswith the central information distribution system since it became the Olympics integrator in 2002 and has a contract that runs to the end of the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.

“It was ready for a refresh. It hadn’t moved on from the beginning of the century. It was time to move on and the user demand has moved on,” Pennell says of the re-development of three quarters of the IT applications that has taken place for the Olympics’ 2012 iteration.

“User demand has moved on. Expectations of technology are higher than at previous Olympics. Now 50 per cent of mobile phones sold are smartphones. As a result and that carries the expectation that all the information from the Olympics will be in the palms of users’ hands in real time.”

In expectation that this Smartphone demand will be extremely high at the actual Olympic Park in Newham, London Locog has created a very large wi-fi zone around the park.

“I won’t guarantee it will be perfect, but it will be just fine,” Pennell says with studied conservatism.

A quarter of the Locog budget has been attributed to technology. Pennell’s team has put technology into over 100 competition venues, not only in London but also in football stadiums in cities such as Coventry, sailing venues in Weymouth and cycling venues in Surrey and Essex.

The technology landscape includes a broadcast centre, the Olympic village, a central control centre, transport depots serving the park, Heathrow Airport, temporary venues like the All England Club Wimbledon, Earls Court Exhibition Centre and some of the training venues.

The Olympics will have its own VoIP telecoms network, local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN) and datacentre to underpin the results and athlete accreditation.

It will support 100 specialist applications for managing the arrival and departure of athletes, media, staff, volunteers and spectators.

It also has to account for media technologies that create graphics, run the video boards, provide simultaneous interpretation and a closed-circuit TV network.

Some four billion TV viewers from around the globe are expected to watch the Games, and as a result the media IT requirement stands second on the podium of demands for Pennell.

His team delivers the flash quotes and the on-the-spot reactions of victor or vanquished to the media centre.

This is a service which has moved since the last Olympiad from being kiosk-based to browser-accessed.

The athlete’s village has full wi-fi coverage and PCs are available to the competitors.

During the Olympics a 173-seat operations centre will receive feeds of every game taking place.

“Think Houston Mission Control,” Pennell says of the Technology Operations Centre that goes into an Olympics.

In preparation for the Games, Locog has carried out test events and technical rehearsals using independent officials where elements of the systems are taken down in order to test responsiveness both of the technology and the operation.

“You need these test events to test the technology and for me there are a lot of operational things you discover might be in the wrong place, for example. You are building corporate learning. You wouldn’t do a play without a rehearsal. As a result I am confident we can put on a great event.