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London Olympics CIO says smartphones were big hurdle

London Olympics CIO says smartphones were big hurdle

London was first Olympics with major mobile data challenge, says CIO Gerry Pennell

Gerry Pennell was CIO of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Gerry Pennell was CIO of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The CIO of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Gerry Pennell, had to prepare for an explosion of smartphone use that had never been seen at Olympic events.

At the time of the previous summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, the Apple iPhone had only been out a year and the first Android phone had just been released by HTC, Pennell told attendees at today's Optus Vision conference in Sydney.

When planning got under way in 2008 for London, Pennell said he could already see that smartphone usage was going to be vastly higher by the time it was London’s turn to host the Olympics.

“We knew this was going to be important,” he said. “We didn’t know back then how important. We didn’t know really what devices we might have to pop the information to. But we knew that it was going to be big.”

What worried the CIO was not having mobile apps ready, but having the infrastructure to support massive numbers of visitors trying to access data and share photos from the event, Pennell said.

Pennell chose to leave the apps for later in the process with the thinking that if they were done too soon they might have to be redeveloped to support new or different technologies.

The big concern was supporting a potentially huge amount of user-generated content using mobile devices and social media, he said.

At the time in London, 3G coverage was available but if too many people got on the network at the same time and in the same place, there could be debilitating congestion that would lock out anyone from using the network, he said.

Pennell didn’t have the time or budget to upgrade mobile infrastructure across London, so he worked with BT and Cisco to develop a high-density Wi-Fi network and install extra 3G mobile base stations inside and around the Olympic venues, he said.

Mobile aside, Pennell listed a number of unusual constraints he faced as CIO of the Olympic Games.

He had a fixed deadline to deliver all the technology, he said. There were high expectations based on the high profile of the Olympics and he had only one shot to deliver, he added.

Also, Pennell’s organisation, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) was formed for the event and thus had no experience doing such a big event.

“We the organising committee did not know what we were doing. It was a voyage of discovery.”

Testing and rehearsing played a key role in making sure everything went well on the day, he said. The staff put in 200,000 man hours of testing both in the lab and in the field, he said.

A strong emphasis on process and role clarity also contributed to everyone being ready as soon as the Games got going, he said.

However, Pennell said the thing that was most important to success was shared commitment to a common goal of delivering a great Olympic Games.

“It was really that motivation that enabled my team and the rest of the organising committee and the teams of our respective partners all to overcome the various barriers that we encountered [and] to deliver in the end.”

Adam Bender covers business tech issues for CIO and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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Tags olympic gamesinfrastructureGerry Pennellapps3gLondon 2012OlympicsmobileCIO

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