Being a sports fan in the past involved watching your favourite games – on TV or in person – and checking scores in the newspaper. However, the advent of the internet and the growth of digital culture has changed that.
Nowadays, it is becoming increasingly common to be watching one game while checking up on multiple others using a smartphone. Users like to be informed of what’s going on as soon as it happens, often through push notifications directly to their phone, which has created a challenge for data providers as it quickly becomes a race to get the right information out to people quickly.
Helen Baron, Principal Solutions Architect at Sky, is very familiar with this. “With push notifications we can tell our users when something happens, rather than them having to keep checking. User demand and a competitive market means the aim for us is to always reach people the quickest.” she said. “When something happens at an event our data providers send us the information, we process it and we’ll send out a push notification within a matter of seconds.”
“Live data is really important especially on our mobile apps, so over the years we have re-architected our data ingest so we can surface it even quicker.
Helen said: “We now process multiple data files at once rather than one at a time, we write the data straight into our live servers without it going into the database first. We push the data out live and then put it in the database for statistical reasons. It’s only a few seconds’ difference, but by not going in the database we’ve saved a second or two.”
Sky now gets information out to users typically within ten to fifteen seconds. However there are often challenges to this record time when an unexpected event occurs.
“With football matches, it should be team A versus team B, 90 minutes, so it should be fairly straightforward,” she said. However, there are always edge cases. “For example, a match could get abandoned because the floodlights have failed. We need to tell our users this straight away.
“We need to tell them why it was abandoned. We need to tell them – if we can – when those floodlights might be turned back on, or at least keep them updated if the match is going to be postponed or cancelled altogether.”
“In a game of football there’s red cards, yellow cards, extra time, penalties, different team formations; we had a surprise just the other week where a team came out in a completely new formation, so obviously, it didn’t match up with anything in our codebase and therefore we had to work very quickly to put that right.
“Every different data combination has to be programmed into the mobile apps, website, ingest scripts and database so it can be displayed correctly. So while football could seem fairly straightforward, actually every scenario has got to be coded for, tested and planned in. We then have to do that for all the other sports we cover.”
This can be a challenge when there’s so much pressure to get the information out to fans as quickly as possible so as not to negatively impact their user experience. But Helen and her team have been working on this for some time, and they’re always challenging themselves to do better.
“Now, we are aiming to be even quicker. There are always more layers within that fifteen seconds that we can make more efficient; for example, how often the app is polling for data or lowering cache times without affecting performance.
“We look at how we can reduce the pipeline even further. Can we make it quicker than our current ten to fifteen seconds? Can we make it consistently quicker than ten seconds? Can we make it instant?”
Principal Solutions Architect
Sky Digital Content
Having worked in digital for the last 14 years with a background in editorial and sport website development, Helen is now Principle Solutions Architect for Sky Digital Content working across Sky Sports and Sky News UK and European digital estate.