The man with 450 geeks powering the Olympics – and maybe tomorrow's startups?

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In many respects the gargantuan project that is the tech behind the Olympics and ‘tech bubble’ startups don’t have a lot in common. One is a massive systems integration exercise involving large corporate players like ATOS, ACER, BT, Samsung, Panasonic, Cisco and multiple others. The other is a wave of fast moving companies filled with sneaker-wearing CEOs who prefer bean bags and foozebal to the air-conditioned corporate offices of LOCOG (that’s London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, to you).

But, speaking to Gerry Pennell, CIO of London 2012 and the man charged with delivering the technology around the Olympics, it looks like there is more to this than meets the eye that might pique the interest of the entrepreneur.

For starters there is the infrastructure of the project, which involves huge amounts of fibre to carry data around the Olympic park partners. Much of this will be left in the ground after the Olympics end in August next year, including in the Broadcast centre and the athletes’ village (something we’ve pointed out as being a potential Geek Village, if someone has the vision to make it happen).

Another aspect is the massive WiFi project that will cover the Park. This is designed to take the heat off the mobile phone networks during peak times, as the Mayor of London has fretted over. But the opportunity for startups being able to push their smartphone apps during the Games is obvious.

Although to Pennell people live tweeting a race is less of an issue to him than making sure the media gets all the results of the events in realtime. A lot of new software architecture has been created for this for the Olympics and there’s going to be a new Olympic Data Feed, an XML feed for the media and rights holders, which subsequent events will make use of. A new Commentator Information System (CIS) means realtime results rather than TV cameras picking up crowds cheering before the results appear on screen.

“We’ll also be developing some iOS, Android, RIM and Windows 7 applications do deliver various things” he says, adding that more will be revealed about this apps in due course.

But unfortunately Pennell skirted around the issue of Open Data at the Olypmics.

The former technology director for the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games and most CIO of Co-operative Financial Services, says: “The main stream of data people will want to tap into is the results feeds, and because that involves sponsors and partners who have all paid for that, it’s not something we can provide on an Open Data bases. There is a lot of other information that can be provided.”

Clearly, with the planning starting years ago, it’s to be hoped other events might take advantage of the ability of startups to deliver great apps on top of this kind of data. For now, it looks like the usual corporate data rules apply.

The sheer scale of the tech aspects of the Olympics have to be read to be believed.

The 16 days of the Olympics games and 12 days of the Paralympics will see 450 technologists keep 180 servers and 1160 PCs and laptops running 24/7. There are 92 buildings to be connected and BT is investing 640,000 man hours in the project. A volunteer portal created by Atos Origin will manage volunteer staff of up to 70,000 during the games. A radio trunked network from British company Airwave will will be used by stewards and the emergency services, and will act as a backup mobile network if anything goes wrong.

The budget for technology at the games is a small £2.1m, but a lot of the budget is value in kind in the form of sponsorship deals with the likes of Panasonic and Cisco.

Perhaps most interesting to startups is the legacy aspect of the games, and not just the fibre in the ground.

Pennel says LOCOG is plugged into the UK government’s TechCity initiative to enliven the existing cluster of startups in East London known colloquially as Silicon Roundabout.

And with 450 highly technically qualified people coming onto the jobs market after the games this could prove a rich source of hiring for startups once the games are over.

It’s something Pennel is keen to point out: “Many of the people in my team would actually be a good match for startups because they are used to working in a very fast-paced, quickly changing environment.”

Does he think they’d adapt to life living amongst beanbags and T-shirted CEOs?

“In some ways the lifecycle of this organisation is very like a startup. We’ve moved from being very small to very large in a small amount of time,” he says.

Pressing the button on tech for the Olympic is a big job. Perhaps there will be rich pickings for startups in a year’s time after all.