The 2012 Olympic Games: Will Data Save the Day?

Data analysis is being used during the Olympic Games for everything from ensuring a smooth flow of commuter traffic to generating a multi-colored light show on the London Eye each night based on Twitter feed sentiments.

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Data analysis is being used during the Olympic Games for everything from ensuring a smooth flow of commuter traffic to generating a multi-colored light show on the London Eye each night based on Twitter feed sentiments.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mr G’s Travels.

Maybe big data could have saved Mitt Romney from his now infamous diplomatic blunder in London this past week, when the U.S. presidential candidate questioned whether The Big Smoke was ready to stage a successful Olympic Games.

The fact is, data analytics are in use everywhere in London during the Games — on the Tube, in the airwaves and on the London Eye, the enormous Ferris wheel that is now staged as a giant emoticon swirling over the city — providing a second-by-second read on everything from public transport to crowd movements to citizen sentiments.

Behind the scenes, Transport for London (TfL) is employing a massive, multifaceted data analysis program to ensure that London travelers stay informed — and moving along their merry way — during the Olympics. TfL Director of Games transport Mark Evers said in a recent interview with tech news outlet that TfL is aggregating data generated from its commuter network, video cameras, smart phones and social media to ensure a smooth flow of commuter traffic — as well as crowd control.

“We’re doing an enormous amount of work to make sure we keep London transport ready to play its part in both hosting great games, but also to make sure we keep London open for business,” Evers said.

According to a recent article in The Economist, TfL operates one of the largest metro telecoms networks in the world, “just to cope with the huge amounts of data generated by its 270 stations and 530 trains.” During the Games, TfL is continuously monitoring that data to determine where hotspots are, and to act accordingly, be that by alerting travelers to delays or altering traffic flows.

TfL is also monitoring ticket sales from its Oyster card prepay system. In partnership with the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, TfL is determining, for example, what time of day people are traveling and where the most heavily trafficked stations are. According to the Economist article, one question the Centre will try to answer during the Games is this: do people actually respond to the advice they receive from TfL, or do they happily go on their way regardless?

Pulling in video data, TfL has added additional CCTV cameras around sports venues and throughout the city. It’s analyzing feeds to make sure it understands where queues are falling or where stations are busy. There are also reports that authorities are using facial recognition technology to identify known criminals and pickpockets.

On the mobile front, TfL signed on with Virgin Media to offer free Wi-Fi to Tube riders. While it’s a nice gesture that will help keep commuters in the know, TfL is using the Wi-Fi network to track aggregated and anonymized Smartphone data to estimate the volume and direction of pedestrian traffic. The goal: to understand both where people are crowding and where they are moving to within open spaces.

So where does social media fit into all this? Everywhere. And not just with TfL.

London is the first ever summer games where social media plays an enormous role, according to Evers. TfL is monitoring social media to understand “what people on the streets are saying,” he says, “so that we can add that information along side all the stuff we’re collecting — the data feeds throughout the network — so we can package up the right information for our operations. . . to make the right decisions so that people can get around and have a good time.”

And finally, for those not in the TfL loop, there is The London Eye to look to for a daily read on whether or not people are having a good time — whether they’re miffed or mollified about gold medals and traffic jams.

Situated on the banks of the Thames River, the Eye will light up the night sky in a multi-colored light show based on London-based Twitter feed sentiments.

The technology behind the Eye was developed by EDF Energy, which is supplying all the electricity for the games, and a group of MIT graduates that formed the company Sosolimited, which combines art and technology. According to an article in Wired, the team developed an algorithm that linguistically analyzes tweets related to the games — terms like ‘Olympics,’ ‘torch relay,’ ‘London 2012,’ and EDF’s hashtag #energy2012. The terms are then run through a sentiment algorithm that determines a positive or negative vibe.

The results: 24 hours worth of Twitter sentiment, digitized into a 24-minute light show displayed twice a night throughout the Games, on the London Eye.

Here’s hoping its all good. For Mr. Romney’s sake, if nothing else.

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