How the internet will solve an Olympian puzzle
Millions of spectators and tourists are expected to flock to London this summer, placing a huge strain on essential services. Rhodri Marsden looks at IT's role in keeping things running
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Monday 02 April 2012
Most of us weren't around when the Olympic Games last came to London, in the summer of 1948, and few of us have had the experience of living and working in an Olympic city during the Games. Those who do remember 1948 will recall the "The Austerity Games", an event whose budget was pared to the bone in the aftermath of the Second World War: no new venues were built and there was no Olympic Village for the athletes to relax in.
This summer, however, presents London with a wildly different prospect. The area around Stratford in East London has been completely transformed, with additional arenas for hockey, basketball and water polo surrounding the main Olympic Park. An estimated 11 million people will be descending on the capital to witness the spectacle – presenting a challenge that has been described as "Britain's largest peacetime logistical exercise". More than 10,000 athletes and their teams, more than 100 heads of state and millions of spectators and tourists will all have to be housed, fed, entertained and moved backwards and forwards.
This undoubtedly presents a tremendous economic opportunity for businesses – after all, these people will all be spending money. A study by Visa has estimated that consumers will spend an extra £750m over the seven-week period of the Olympic and Paralympic Games; most of that sum will come from foreign visitors, Visa reckons. The estimate dwarfs the amount spent at the last three Games, in Sydney, Athens and Beijing, largely because of London's status as an international transport hub. This shopping spree is predicted to lead to a stimulus worth £5.1bn to the UK economy by 2015, a forecast that's welcome in a time of economic uncertainty.
But there will be a price to pay for Londoners over the period of the Games, in terms of disruption to our routines. We'd be wise to pay heed to the words of Colin Hansen, a former British Columbia minister during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, who said afterwards that "the scale of the event was much bigger than anyone expected". Fortunately, while many of us have had our heads in the sand, others have been doing some feverish planning. Perhaps the most obvious strain on civil infrastructure will be London's transport network. Sixty-five per cent of London's stations and 70 per cent of the road network should be unaffected by the Olympics, but there will still be hundreds of thousands of additional people using a system that's notoriously overstretched during peak hours.
The last few years have seen a number of developments that will help ease congestion; these have included new stations, the London Overground upgrade, and getting thousands of people off public transport and onto bicycles. But this summer will still prove to be a huge test, both for the network and for those of us using it – especially as other big events, such as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Notting Hill Carnival, will be taking place around the same time. In addition, 109 miles of London's roads will be designated as the Olympic Route Network – a contractual obligation that's essential for the smooth running of the Games. About a third of this road network will have special Games Lanes that aren't open to normal traffic.
As a result, the Games will affect businesses and individuals in ways that many of us probably haven't considered. A survey by BT earlier this year found a huge disparity between the number of businesses that see the Games as a business opportunity (73 per cent) and the number that have prepared themselves for the challenges likely to be posed by an exceptionally crowded London (29 per cent). Businesses in and around the capital face two main problems: first, keeping the supply chain moving by getting goods from A to B; and second, getting staff into the workplace. One solution to the latter problem is to increase provision for home working. This is not something that every company can take advantage of, but for office-based businesses it's perfectly possible for digital networks to take the strain when transport networks find themselves under pressure.
Tim Passingham from BT Conferencing sees it as a watershed moment for flexible working, which could continue to grow after the Games have finished. "As well as presenting a great opportunity for businesses commercially," he says, "it will also allow them to trial flexible working options and see how they suit their organisation – whether they're in the public or private sector – and it could mark a real change in the way they work." BT's own offerings such as WebEx (for real-time document sharing through a web browser) and MeetMe (audio conferencing with people in up to 40 different locations) are just two of numerous products that can eliminate the need to travel and help speed up decision making.
This summer could see many businesses experimenting with innovations such as video conferencing and cloud-based working for the first time.This isn't the only additional load to be placed on computer networks. Much of the discussion surrounding the impact of the Games on businesses ignores the fact that many employees will be keen to watch the events. Back in 2000, 28 per cent of businesses in Sydney experienced higher absenteeism, as people either headed to the arenas or stayed at home in front of the television.
Online video has surged in popularity over the last four years, and many people will by now think nothing of sneakily watching events streaming to their browser window at work – which, of course, massively increases data consumption. Many critical services (banking, security, transport, emergency services) rely on data connections to operate properly; those connections will be tested as never before this summer.
Cisco's Technical Assistance Centre is one support network that has expanded its capabilities in preparation; its involvement in previous global sporting events has given it a good idea of what to expect. "We have a lot of customers who we've put under the Olympic umbrella who aren't directly involved in the Games," says Cisco's services marketing manager, Cecilia Atkinson. "They all operate crucial services, and while their relationship to the Games is only tangential, all kinds of people could be affected if their networks go down."
A special incident room set up by Cisco is just one measure that has been taken to ensure that this doesn't happen. "It's critical that all our customers are confident that their network infrastructure works all the time," says Neil Crockett, managing director of London 2012 for Cisco. "That's the case whether they're running the greatest sporting event in the world, or an enterprise critical network."
The lynchpin of the Games is clearly the London 2012 Organising Committee (Locog), which has been working towards making the event a success from the time London was given the honour of hosting the event in the summer of 2005. Locog faces a herculean task dealing with the athletes and spectators who arrive for the events, but it does at least have a precise idea of how many people are turning up and when.
For the rest of London it's going to be much more of a guessing game, the answer to which will only become apparent when the Games kick off in a few months' time. But don't think you won't notice they're happening. Because you most certainly will.
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