After a two-month delay caused by COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Tour de France (TDF) kicked off last weekend on August 29, the first time since the end of World War II that the international cycling event is not taking place in July.
The three-week race, which will run through September 20, features a total of 176 riders spread across 22 teams with 8 riders per team, traversing a distance of nearly 3,500km in various terrains all over the country.
Like many contemporary sporting events, TDF has embraced digital transformation, delivering real-time live action from the field to technology-savvy cycling fans on the internet, who long abandoned the traditional television to watch the race on their desktops, laptops, phone and tablets. TDF organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) has been working with technology partner NTT to deepen fan engagement on the new channels through interactive and immersive experiences that add value to the live broadcast.
NTT has worked with TDF since 2015, initially under its Dimension Data branding. This is second year the company is appearing as NTT, following a global rebranding.
Five years ago, NTT installed sensors installed under the saddle of every bike in the race, capturing real-time data on speed and GPS location through a moving mesh network to the NTT Cloud.
From the two pieces of information (speed and location) obtained from the tracking device on a bike, NTT generates 60 data points per rider, per second . The company then has just a few minutes to generate engaging data visualisations and animations for the live broadcast and other channels.
Then, NTT pushes 10 to 12 data-driven stories to the live broadcast at every stage, and over stories every day on social media.
With live tracking of riders and providing real-time data for broadcasters, the set of services has grown each year. Highlights include enhanced data analytics, a full Race Center website, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to provide greater insight into the race, the use of augmented reality, and the creation of fantasy leagues linked to the race.
Updating the technology platform
Even before the pandemic reared its head, NTT was hard at work upgrading a couple of key elements of the technology platform behind the digital innovations in the annual cycling event, according to Rob Webster, vice president of the Advanced Technology Group for Sport at NTT.
First to get the makeover is the real-time analytics platform, which processes the data from the bike and makes them sensible.
“Why do we need a real time analytics platform? The dirty secret of the IoT world is that the data is not clean,” Webster said during a recent webcast. “As an example of what we face, we get GPS data from those sensors. GPS data has a margin of error of about 10 to 20 metres around where the sensor really is. Imagine a bike moving up the Alps and we get a reading for a particular rider in that area between all of the group. Where exactly is that rider? So, we actually have to constantly monitor where the riders are, who are they riding with and how fast they are going so that we can correct the GPS errors and snap them into the route in the most likely location that they really are. That is why we need to run real-time data processing.”
NTT has built the TDF data analytics platform from the ground up. This year, it has migrated to an open-source platform, building a containerised solution that can be deployed on a modular basis. Websters gave two reasons for the move.
“Five years ago, open-source was not sufficiently robust to deal with the extremely low latency that we have to deal with. That has changed and we are now able to take advantage of the incredible technology changes that have happened in the open source world.
“The second reason is that we have learned a whole lot in the last five years, and we understood that we don’t only support the tour, but within the tour, different stages are different. Time trials are different to a normal stage. Therefore, it is easier to build the platform in a much more modular basis – reusable functions that can be rearranged in different ways or used in different sequences. How long the riders have been riding for on the normal stage is different to how long riders have been riding for on a time trial where they work on different start times.”
The next key element of the TDF technology platform to be rejigged is the API layer, which makes the GPS, speed and other reference data available. NTT retired its own inhouse API solution in favour of using a set of PaaS services from Microsoft Azure.
“While the API layer has to be robust, there isn’t anything that we are doing with the API that is truly unique to us. So, rather than build our own API, we shifted to using a set of PaaS services from Azure. It is a matter of configuring the API technologies that Microsoft has built on the Azure platform, but we do not need to invest a whole lot of time in building our own unique API. There is no value there,” Webster explained.
The API layer was initially built to support the Race Center website and app, which provides live tracking of the race. It grew over the years to support new applications such as the commentators app.
“It was designed to support specific applications. This year, we have shifted - coming at it from an information architecture point of view. It radically simplify the number and complexity of the endpoints. And that has paid huge dividends in terms of supporting all the consumers from the website and applications and things. We’ve got far fewer endpoints that we need to manage, and they are far easier for the third-party developers or even internal developers, other organisations that are using these APIs. It is a much cleaner model for us to use,” Webster said.
The Race Center website is another area that has a significant technology change this year. It was originally intended as a desktop app albeit it’s mobile enabled. However, noting that usage statics over the last five years showed a strong growth towards mobile, NTT has revamped the website into a mobile-first solution.
“This year we focused on delivering a mobile first solution, but also aligning it more tightly with ASO’s digital strategy. So now the Race Center is much closer in terms of look and feel, and in how it is embedded, its architecture and its functions with the other ASO race websites that they run. I am really hoping the ASO provides a more seamless and consistent experience for fans,” Webster said.
Meanwhile, one the new digital enhancements introduced to the TDF this years is the Augmented Reality Data (AR) app.
In addition to the live race footage, the app will provide selected users with a unique way of viewing and interacting with live race data and the amazing landscapes of the Tour de France. For the first time this will allow fans to appreciate the scale of the event in 3D from their home. With an unprecedented view from the sky, they will see the riders among the mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, and have access to interactive live data on the race while feeling like they’re actually viewing the race from a helicopter.
Creating the Virtual Zone Technique
NTT decided not to send a team to France to man the NTT control centre, which is basically a large truck positioned at the finish line of each stage and keeps an eye on all technology operations.
Instead, the company developed the Virtual Zone Technique that brings together different technologies to deliver its Tour de France services remotely for the first time.
A total of 70 NTT employees across five continents are manning this virtual control centre with the help of a global team of experts and partners. This will keep staff safe while supporting the running of the race and providing an enhanced experience for fans.
“We came up the idea of using all our digital and collaboration platforms to create a Virtual Zone Technique, so people sitting in Melbourne or Johannesburg would have the same level of access to the data, videos and conversations they were used to in the physical Zone Technique,” said Peter Gray, SVP Advanced Technology Group – Sports at NTT.
The Zone Technique is the technology environment that supports everything NTT does at the Tour de France, from gathering and analysing live-tracking data to creating data visualizations and stories that are published on various platforms and as part of the live broadcast.
“Remote execution has given us the opportunity to bring together a lot of services that weren’t together before – video streams from the end of the race, data monitoring, and an observability platform that allows the team to view everything through one portal, for example,” Gray said.