Telstra's AFL Player Tracker was a lesson in more than just getting stats to fans

The telco had to consider more than just sensors, which ended up being a lesson in how to communicate security to all stakeholders.

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Telstra Player Tracker

Screenshot: Asha Barbaschow/ZDNet

Telstra was last year approached by the Australian Football League (AFL) to develop a way to track the players and display it in a real-time and interactive way to fans.

Speaking at Amazon Web Services (AWS) Summit Online, Telstra lead architect Ralph Stone said the proposition was quite simple. It involved the players wearing tags on the back of their jerseys and as they moved around during the game, the tags -- utilising GPS and a location accelerometer -- would measure the instantaneous velocity, log average velocity, and the distance the player travels during the game.

Every two seconds, sensors around the ground would gather the information as Telstra's data collection partner collates all the data and packages it up so that at the end of the game, coaches and players can analyse the statistics and develop learning strategies from there.

But the AFL wanted this to occur in real time, not just after the game.

"The product proposal was fascinating. It was, 'Now that we've got this data, what if we streamed it to our customers who are watching live games during the match?'" he explained.

"So all that data, we would collect and synchronise it somehow with the video going out, so that they both arrive to the mobile device in sync and the customers could then switch between two alternate views."

Stone said the concept was imagined as the players being represented as moving coloured dots on the screen, different colours for different teams, with the player's number present, too.

"You could click on a particular player and follow his trajectory as he ran around the ground, also click on a stats icon and get all the cumulative stats for that player during the game -- speeds, velocities, and a couple of other stats," he explained.

With a "screen-in-screen" layout, Stone said fans could watch the live game and explore the player tracker view simultaneously, switching back and forth.

"It's a great concept and sounded like a really great product," he said. "At the time, we thought that most of our challenges would be around keeping the data in sync."

But what Stone found, however, was that most of the challenges did not end up being around the technical and timing and data in streams.

He said as Telstra ran its solution past the stakeholders, it realised there were quite a number of them; there was the AFL itself, the 18 AFL clubs, the AFL Players Association representing the interests of the individual players, the data collection partner who collated the data from the sensors around the ground, the app development partner, and the player's lawyers.

He said speaking with them all, a number of concerns were raised about the security of the data.

Stone said there were examples coming from similar ventures in the United States where media got its hands on raw data and it was misinterpreted. He said a player was seen as slowing down in consecutive games, which led to reports that his career might be coming to an end.

"Turned out the coach had simply given him different playing instructions … but the player suffered reputational damage," Stone said. "Now, in general, football players are actually very valuable brands in themselves so, reputational damage to players is absolutely of great interest.

"So, for that and for other reasons, we needed to reassure all the various stakeholders that the raw data would be kept well secure, and we would go to great lengths to make sure that it wasn't compromised or leaked."

According to Stone, the main challenge Telstra faced was coming up with a highly secure solution and being able to explain that solution to stakeholders.

"How [can] cryptographers and football executives have a conversation with the same understanding of why something is secure," he said. "So we realised that we had to develop a solution which was not only secure, it had to be seen and understood to be secure. And that turned out to be the main challenge."

As the AFL was already on an AWS platform, and Stone said in a project such as this one, there was little justification to invent its own method, Telstra turned to security solutions from the US cloud giant, such as CloudHSM, which is a cloud-based hardware security module (HSM).

HSMs are hardware-isolated devices that use advanced cryptography to store, manipulate, and work with sensitive information such as digital keys, passwords, PINs, and various other sensitive information.

CloudHSM is touted as a government, military, and banking-grade.

Stone said it gets very busy during a game, over 100,000 concurrent requests and a lot of people getting a lot of data every two seconds. The latency for Telstra is one second, it takes the data collection partner a couple of seconds to process and ship it out, then Telstra takes another sub-second to turn it around through the HSM and out again to the app. There's also a "bit" of network latency for the applications getting it.

"But the whole thing turns around from ground to device, in around about four seconds max. We spin out from two to six HSMs during a match, and then spin them back down again -- it depends on how many concurrent games there are during a Saturday," he said.

With the experience becoming a lesson in security and keeping all stakeholders happy, Stone said when it came to cryptographers talking to football executives, trust needed to be more than simply personal.

"'Trust us, we're developers, we're great guys, we're architects', you need a story as well to give them independent confidence in the solution … that's traditionally been quite difficult with cryptography, but the CloudHSM story and some of the white papers and some of the case studies are a fantastic way of reassuring stakeholders. So, a non-technical that they can get a handle on why the solution is secure," he said.

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