IBM’s near real-time Wimbledon data is powered by county tennis players from across the UK, patiently recording the dynamics of every serve, slice and volley
Beyond the grass courts, tennis whites and jugs of Pimms, there’s a whole flurry of activity going on in a dimly lit underground bunker. The series of whirring machines in IBM’s data bunker are fed through to every commentary, post-match analysis and TV graphic on screens across the country. Welcome to the IBM bunker in the heart of the championships.
In the bowels of broadcasting centre sits the data operations alongside the web and content room for IBM, its 25th year as the official technology supplier of Wimbledon and the All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Technology is great, but there’s still a huge reliance on humans
IBM shows off updated technology every year ahead of the championships, driven by a team of data entry experts, photographers, graphic operators and a systems and operation team.
IBM deploys 48 data entry people – 46 are dotted around the venue and sit court side capturing data such as the speed of the serve, the direction of the serve, the number of shots in a rally (forehand and backhand by player) and how a rally is won or lost.
“We employ county national tennis players, because it’s easier to train them on how to enter the data into the system than it is a technical person,” explains Chris Nott, chief technology officer for big data and analytics at IBM UK and Ireland.
Both centre court and court 1 have three data entry people sitting courtside; one calling the game, one who tracks the speed and direction of serves and another who inputs the data into the Wimbledon information system. Nott describes how it is the task of the remaining two data entry people within the bunker to shadow the action on court through the TV coverage and to communicate with the relevant team via radio comms, flagging up any discrepancies.
“It makes it more accurate having two people’s opinions,” says one of the team, turning his head briefly to explain how his communication with the team courtside needs to be fast and the decision instantaneous.
For Henry Moore, 21 from Hampshire it is the first time he has worked in the data entry team for the IBM bunker. A collegiate tennis player in the US, he’s enjoying the opportunity to watch a grand slam from a new perspective. He expresses how focused he has to be in this role: no more drifting in and out of a game when you’re scrutinising every single action.
Who has he enjoyed seeing play? He glances back at the screen. “Dimitrov,” he says. “He’s one to watch.” Indeed he is; shortly after we speak he beats Murray, forcing the defending champion out of the tournament.
From mountains of data to bite-sized chunks
Very detailed data is available from the Wimbledon information system for commentators, players and the media. With data on past matches throughout the year also on the system, commentators can make comparisons on the way a player is performing against past match stats, explains Nott.
A search for Sharapova brings up all her grand slam history, annual ranking, career earnings and tournaments played in this year with corresponding results. Another click and the system pulls up Spencer Gore – the first ever winner of Wimbledo who walked away triumphant with winnings of 12 guineas.
A recording of the match, blended with statistics – meaning players analysing their play can instantaneously match up a stat with the moment in the video – is handed on a USB stick to the players 30 minutes after the match has finished.
From the bunker to your screen
“In the same way we’ve used tennis players to capture [the data], we also put someone alongside the BBC producers… they will then advise them on the appropriate graphic to use at a particular time in the match that is relevant and timely,” says Nott..
One tap of the ‘graphic on’ button and a range of lines spread across the screen showing the direction of Nadal’s shots from the points at which he hit the ball to where the ball landed.
New for 2014 is analysis of aggressive play on centre court, Nott explains, based on an algorithm using four input points: the speed that the ball is hit, the closeness to the line at which it lands next to, the amount of movement of the player goes through to get to hit the ball and from where they hit the ball.
#thehill vs #theworld
Another room is dedicated to social media, and features a large display of live Twitter data, and what people are tweeting about today at Wimbledon. With the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in the Dimitrov vs Murray match, Royal Box is one of the top trending topic displayed.
Which players are the most engaged, where in the world people are tweeting and what pictures people are uploading with the Wimbledon hashtags are also tracked.
The official Wimbledon Twitter account @Wimbledon regularly throws out questions to the Twittersphere. At the moment the question that is raging is “who will win this match? #Murray or #Dimitrov?’ Not only are answers divided by location, #thehill vs #theworld but so it seems is sentiment. Viewers away from the grassy slope don’t fancy Murray’s chances as much with 59% tweeting that Murray will win, while 91% of those tweeting with #thehill think Murray can win.
Andy Burns, digital producer at the IBM digital agency, zooms into an image of the enthusiastic crowd on Henman Hill using the via Slam tracker tool – the centrepiece of IBM’s offerings to the public – a sense of the real atmosphere on the hill is spread. For global fans of the event who are not just interested in the tennis but for all else that comes with it, the 360 degree images provide an intimate look at world famous event that they may be hundreds of miles from.
“We want to create the beauty of being in Wimbledon” explains Nott. There were almost 20 million unique users on mobile channels and wimbledon.com in 2013 and it is expected to grow this year. Ultimately, Nott sums up, the aim is to bring the Wimbledon experience in the otherwise rather quiet area of SW19 to an audience spanning the globe.