The 2012 challenge to help disabled and older people
The Olympic Games in London in 2012 will provide a supreme challenge for more than just the athletes competing in them. They will also push to the limits the capacities of the logistical and communications infrastructures of the UK's capital city, for the athletes and for the hundreds of thousands of visitors, including disabled and older people.
It will, for example, test the ability to cope with the demands for security, safety, convenience and accurate information about events, locations, ticketing and associated travel requirements that will be made by competitors, officials, media organisations and spectators.
Those demands will be enormous in scale. For instance as many as 180,000 spectators are expected to attend events in the main Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, every day. This figure will be in addition to around 100,000 people directly involved in the Games, whether in a sporting or administrative capacity, and as many 20,000 individuals representing the worldwide print and broadcast media.
But the issues will also be complex and diverse. Many of the spectators will be visitors to the UK and may have poor command of the English language meaning they will need help with direction-finding and ticket-purchasing. In fact visitors may have as many 300 first languages of their own. Others will be disabled in some way and will need special assistance to facilitate access to venues and facilities within them.
Says Dr John Gill, Chief Scientist of the RNIB and Chairman of the charity PhoneAbility: "The latest technologies offer extremely exciting possibilities of helping people with disabilities at major sports events such as 2012. If you are bringing in new technologies you should be able to design in from the outset facilities which also help people with disabilities".
But can modern Information and Communications Technology (ICT) provide solutions to all the challenges?
That was the subject of a seminar Designs on the Games that took place at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London. Its aim was to take a close look at smoothing access for visitors, especially disabled and older people, to the 2012 Games and Paralympic Games and other major sports events. The seminar was jointly sponsored by the IET and PhoneAbility which supports the development of ICT systems for use by disabled people.
It was addressed by representatives of several relevant sources of expertise and opinion including, besides the IET and PhoneAbility, a Parliamentarian, the Olympic Delivery Authority, the British Standards Institution (BSI) and both industry and the university sector.
Chris Earnshaw, President of the IET, welcoming the 200 delegates to the seminar, said that the vision of his Institution was to share and advance knowledge throughout the global science, engineering and technology community, to enhance people's lives around the world.
Tony Shipley, Vice-Chairman of PhoneAbility, told the seminar that the technologies to provide improved safety and accessibility for people of all descriptions clearly existed. This was true, he said, of guidance, way-finding systems, access control, information and barrier-free routes. He mentioned as an example 'clever' ticketing systems using contactless smartcards, like the Oyster system that already operates in London. But he also warned of how the Olympics would aggravate the possible consequences of failure in any of these areas.
"If there should be any lack of information, significant lengthy queues, misdirections or other chaotic situations, involving large crowds of people, it will prove just as disastrous to the reputation of London 2012 as would a major terrorist incident," Mr Shipley stated. "In fact it is clear that any of these adverse factors would actually help potential terrorists in their objective and in the process turn a minor incident into a major disaster."
For this reason, ensuring that only properly authorised people gain access to relevant areas of the Olympic site is a crucial issue. This topic was addressed by Julian Jones of the BSI, who discussed the use of biometric information such as fingerprints and iris-recognition for maintaining security at all Olympic-related sites.
Mr Jones pointed out that while the technologies involved are proven their application in the Olympics would require solutions to numerous practical problems deriving from the scale of the Games and diversity of the people attending them. For instance fingerprinting is of no use for people with missing limbs and can also be inhibited by such mundane factors as food on people's hands. Meanwhile systems relying on visual technologies require careful positioning of cameras and subjects. All such technologies, however, can carry connotations of criminality and provoke hostile responses from people on social grounds.
In short, the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will pose major questions of inclusivity and accessibility that will require the proper application of systems based on modern ICT for their solution. As Tony Shipley stated in conclusion:
"The athletes can be expected to deliver the glory of sport and their performances will be remembered for decades. The organisers have to deliver a safe and immaculate environment in which the competitors can do this."
Also speaking at the seminar were: The Earl of Erroll, Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Communications; Dr Stephen Duckworth, Board Member of the Olympic Delivery Authority; Professor Mike McDonald of Southampton University; Geoff Doggett, Chairman of Smart Card Networking Forum; Clive de la Fuente of Location & Timing KTN; and Jim Slater of Slater Electronics Services.
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