Sports: Where Big Data Finally Makes Sense

Big data is a notoriously difficult concept for the masses to wrap their heads around. It's a term that triggers a roll of the eyes by all but the most technologically inclined, but its impact on society is being felt more with each passing day. If you know where to look, that is.

Particularly on the consumer front, explaining the benefits of big data is half of the battle. Many understand the concept of privacy (and the potential for invading it), but few grasp the deeper, longer-term benefits of collecting data, analyzing it, and making one's future more seamless and informed. Strangely enough, the term can be broken down into something quite digestible in one category that most everyone can appreciate: sports.

At this year's United States Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, big data had its moment to shine -- and shine it did. A week prior to the three-day event, which involves a day of practice, a day of qualifying and a day of racing, a team of ninjas descended upon the Circuit of the Americas to erect a compact technical center and lay some 20 kilometers of fiber optic cabling throughout the venue. The aforesaid center is an engineered marvel all its own, designed to be folded up in six hours and expertly squeezed into a single cargo jet. Just two of these exist. While the center was completed in Austin, an identical one was being built in Mexico City in preparation for the next race on the agenda.

That fiber optic cabling is capable of carrying data at the speed of light. Tata Communications' network infrastructure connects the world and millions of F1 fans to all 19 Formula 1 race locations while also acquiring data from over a hundred sensors per racecar. That information is fed back to lap timers, broadcast production operators, and engineering teams located thousands of miles away in just milliseconds.

In other words, gigabytes upon gigabytes of data are used to dictate in real-time which camera is highlighted, which driver audio is overlaid, what graphics are created, and which virtual billboards are stood up for advertising. Oh, and did I mention that this is during a nonstop race where cars routinely travel in excess of 200 miles per hour?

Mehul Kapadia, Managing Director of Tata Communication's F1 business, explains it this way: "What's unique about big data in Formula 1 is how it enables real-time change. Typically, big data refers to massive amounts of information that is collected over time, and then used to inform a team on what changes should be made going forward." To give you a bit of perspective on just how much data is used on a typical F1 weekend, chew on this: five years ago, track timings and a few on-car sensors required only enough bandwidth to send a few thousands 1s and 0s from the track to engineering facilities in the pits and elsewhere on the globe. Today, Full HD video is being shot around from over 20 cameras in addition to sensor data from over a hundred points on each vehicle.

That data is shaping the outcome of the events that we so anxiously watch. Drivers are able to make subtle changes to their car hundreds of times per race in order to shave tenths of a second from lap times. In fact, teams now have a limit on how many engineers they can have onsite at each race, with hundreds more suiting up in different continents to make decisions about timing, tires, fuel, and pit stops remotely. Think about that: the information is transmitted so quickly that entire teams are able to aide drivers in Austin in real-time while sitting in rural England. To boot, those remote teams aren't lacking any data points. Everything that onsite engineers are able to see, remote teams are also able to see. That's what a 1Gbps link out of the track gets you, and as the amount of information collected on the track scales up, so too will the infrastructure. Big data may still resonate most in the hearts of CTOs and enterprise operations, but as information shapes how F1 events are determined, we may see sport -- of all things -- act as the conduit for making it a household term.