The Open: How NTT is using data and AI to contextualise golf’s oldest major

Laurence Norman, the head of sports technology for NTT Data UK, outlines how the Japanese technology firm has been preparing for the return of The Open, and explains how the data experience at the golf tournament will evolve in the coming years.

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The NTT Data Wall has become a familiar sight for those who have regularly attended The Open golf major in recent years.

Introduced by the tournament’s official IT provider in 2014, the 24-by-ten metre structure has been a handy companion for spectators trying to keep up with the ever-changing action of a live golf event. Comprising an interactive LED display made up of 418 individual panels, the data wall features the live television broadcast as well as a host of statistics, trends and 3D visuals delivered to fans in real time. More recently, NTT even added artificial intelligence (AI) technology to showcase the emotions of fans and players throughout the competition.

In normal circumstances, the data wall, which is made from aluminium truss and steel scaffolding, is built over a seven-day period, tested for five and then taken down in three once The Open is over. This year, however, none of that will be necessary as NTT has decided not to bring the data wall to Royal St George’s Golf Club in Kent, instead opting to roll out a virtual substitute designed to offer fans a more personalised experience.

Indeed, NTT has announced that fans will have access to a live data stream and personalised AI-supported newsfeed during the 149th running of the event. The feature, to be made available on The Open website and official app, will provide real-time updates on players, scores, and shots as they occur, while the live data stream will display the analysis of the eight billion data points generated during the championship.

It follows the cancellation of The Open in 2020, when tournament organiser the R&A tasked NTT to come up with a virtual alternative for the event. The result was The Open for the Ages, which utilised archive footage dating back to 1970 and machine learning to digitally recreate a final round at St Andrews featuring winners of the Claret Jug from the last 50 years.

Laurence Norman, who is head of sports technology for NTT Data UK, says that the Japanese firm will have around five people back on site to oversee data production this year. It might be the first edition of The Open since the onset of Covid-19, but NTT has already got a feel for how to operate during post-pandemic events through its work on motorsport’s Indy 500 and the Tour de France.  

Ahead of the highly anticipated return of The Open this weekend, when 32,000 fans will be in attendance each day, SportsPro caught up with Norman, who was named in the inaugural class of ten influential technologists in sport, to hear more about the technology being deployed at the 2021 event, how it will differ from a normal year, and how the data experience at golf’s oldest major will evolve in the years ahead. 


How much of what you’ve got planned for this year is rolled over from what you were expecting to be able to do last year, and how much of the data experience is going to be entirely new?

We actually had some pretty ambitious plans for 2020. What we normally have is the infographics and the data storytelling angle. But we also have things like fan sentiment checks, so we have microphones and cameras seeing if people are smiling or groaning or cheering, and posture analysis of the players to see if they are happy with a shot. So a lot of that was already planned [for last year] and the next iteration of that.

But then we were also planning a whole set of adjacent technologies. There are 105 cameras at The Open and people only ever see the final world feed, the production, which makes it look like one camera narrowed down into a single view. So we were going to take all of the camera feeds and use machine vision technology to clip those, so we had basically a digital asset of all of the shots, all of the players, all of the time. And then you could create your own digital channels around that. We were also looking at some nice security use cases around 5G networks, and all of that went down the pan.

For a number of our sports partners, I think there was a realisation in 2020 that, for a long time, they'd been missing out on some opportunities to access fans off site.

The thing that people have been talking to us about is that the data wall is great, we call it ‘a heads up social experience’, because people sit down with their mates, they grab a beer, a burger, and they all enjoy the same social experience. But what they don't get is anything personal. So the thing that was always missing when we’re doing this work was how could you make it personalised? And that's the aim with this year's activation. People can choose what players they want to follow, and they can get that more personalised experience that they couldn’t get before.

None of that was actually planned for 2020 at all, because we were still planning on having the big wall. Then, when we decided this year we wouldn't have the physical data wall, that's when we decided to make our virtual version on the back of the virtual stuff we did on The Open for the Ages. We'll probably be bringing back all of that more ambitious stuff for 2022 at St Andrews. That's the plan, and we'll look at really working with some of our clients and partners on making that happen as well. 

What was the thinking behind the decision to make the data wall a virtual – rather than physical – experience this year?

It was really for two reasons. We usually start our planning for this in November, but of course we didn't even know there would be fans in attendance until March or April, and then it changed again. First of all it was going to be behind closed doors, then maybe 5,000 fans, then it went to full fans, and then it went to 32,000 – only after the R&A convinced the government it could be part of their Event Research Programme. So really, we couldn't plan on spending a significant amount of money on a physical structure when there may not be anybody there.

Also, it is very much an engineered mass gathering. We want people to wait there, we measure footfall and lag time. So the longer they wait and the more people that are doing it, the better from a activation point of view. But everyone together in a single place seemed inappropriate.

So for all those reasons we decided not to do the physical wall this year, and that's why we really doubled down on going virtual this year. But nothing replaces that. I'm absolutely sure in 2020 we'll do all of that – we'll do the physical and we’ll have our virtual stuff as well, and people will mix up the more personalised experience with the physical wall.


Is there an increased focus this year on engaging with people who can’t be at The Open because of the capacity limit and travel restrictions inevitably preventing a lot of overseas fans from being there? 

Yeah, absolutely. We saw what happened with the Tour de France, and I think we've moved a bit from this. With what was happening with all of the sports [we are involved in], we saw that as an opportunity to increase our reach beyond the people who are lucky enough to attend physically.

For a number of our sports partners, I think there was a realisation in 2020 that, for a long time, they'd been missing out on some opportunities to access fans off site. This progression towards digital transformation has been necessary over the last year, and now they’ve realised there's an opportunity on the back of that. They’re not just going to revert back to how it was, so I think that’s a permanent change that has happened to access more fans that can't otherwise be accessed.

How have you seen the way that golf fans in particular engage with data evolve in your time working with The Open? Has the appetite for those data-led experiences got stronger?

I always say that golf is particularly data-heavy, but I think most sports are now. I think for golf it’s particularly important because these championships, although they are compressed into this four-day period, it's quite hard to understand what's going on because there's a lot happening at the same time. It's not like watching a football game where you see everything in the stadium and you get the context very quickly, whereas in golf that is hard to do. 

I think data helps tell those stories better about what's happening and likelihoods of things occurring, and I think our fans find that very engaging, that they can understand the context better. And by fans here, I don't just mean diehard, because it could also be people who are just putting their toe in the water or trying to understand the sport a bit. There are two different challenges there, but the data can help. It's about the insights that the data tells, the comparisons it pulls out, the predictions it can make, and then the stories it tells. There is a drama in how these competitions play out and data can help tell those.

We’ll be experimenting as well around essentially publishing some of that data. Golf is quite famous for this: data is published publicly and competitions are run to allow people to experiment with it and build machine learning tools around it, and we'll probably be getting involved in that kind of work as well over the next year or so.

The aim of NTT's data experience this year is to give fans a more personalised experience

How can we expect to see the data experience at The Open continue to evolve in the coming years?

The personalisation angle, we're not going to give up on that, because it is one thing that people expect now from any kind of digital channel – that they can personalise what they have. But we found that joint social experience a really important part of what the data wall was, so I think we'll be linking those together more effectively.

Again, we want to still keep people engaged when they're not on site because even next year we will still have a limited number of people who can ever attend, so we want to definitely play to that angle of getting more people involved much more effectively. We'd like to do much more around the augmented reality side of it. We did play with it a little bit a few years ago, just in the VIP pavilion, but perhaps start using some of that approach a bit more. 

I always say that golf is particularly data-heavy, but I think most sports are now. I think for golf it’s particularly important because there's a lot happening at the same time.

One thing we'd like to do a bit more is start working with some of our technology clients in partnership. One of the areas we're definitely looking at, connectivity is a key part of these events now. Getting a quarter of a million people into these events that are stood up for only a few days, and making sure that people can access stuff and see what's going on is important. We’d therefore like to work with some of the 5G technologies next year to see what we can bring to light using machine vision, for example, on cameras connected to 5G networks to see what kind of use cases we can pull out from that.

I suspect we'll also see something around effective crowd management. We do a lot of work for that. We did it at the Tour de France, we did it at the Indy500, which could be everything from helping the car parking flow a bit better to avoiding big queues, making the flow of people much more effective in different areas.

So I think we'll be seeing a lot of those examples, as well as the next iteration of the data wall for 2022. It’s the 150th [edition of The Open], so it’s going to be a big event generally. For us, the marketing of that is going to be much more impactful next year, so we'll be putting some interesting stuff together.