How Special Olympics is leveraging Microsoft tech

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 05 April 2017
How Special Olympics is leveraging Microsoft tech

Special Olympics is turning 50 next year, but to long-time volunteer coach Bryan Tweit, the organisation for athletes with intellectual disabilities seems almost brand-new as it rejuvenates itself with the cloud and other technological advances to provide better sports experiences.

In an interview from Austria, where the Special Olympics World Winter Games were held in March, Tweit said he employs advanced technology as a professional ski and snowboard instructor in Oregon. For example, he uses high-resolution video with apps that analyse the angles of skiers’ shoulders, hips, knees and even hands as they descend a mountain, while measuring the snow on their skis’ edges during turns, to break down the details of improvements the athletes could make.

So as Tweit has coached alpine skiing for Special Olympics the past 25 years, it has been beyond frustrating for him to be stuck in the ‘Dark Ages’. That’s how Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver, whose mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the organisation in 1968, described the non-profit’s processes last year. The group didn’t have the funds or resources to keep up with technology.

Tweit, who also runs the downhill-ski portion of Oregon’s state games for Special Olympics, said paper records and manual data-entry systems left competitions susceptible to scoring errors that meant medals were occasionally errantly withheld, or wrongly awarded and taken back.

“One of my athletes was already on his way home after a competition, thinking he hadn’t won anything even though he felt like he’d performed really well, and then they discovered they’d had him in the wrong column on the wrong sheet, and he’d actually won a gold medal,” Tweit said. “But by that point, all they could do was mail the medal to him. So he didn’t get to stand on the podium or enjoy the recognition and support from the ceremony or experience any of that excitement that’s so important.

“You know the technology exists to avoid these instances, and you just wish it could be utilised,” he said.

Tweit’s wish is coming true – and then some. Special Olympics is completely revamping its operations, providing a whole new experience for everyone involved.

One goal is to scrap paper records in favour of the cloud, to help athletes, coaches and fans get instant information, both online and on mobile devices, instead of having to wait hours or even days. That approach will help Special Olympics use data to do more for millions of people, including the 2,600 athletes, 1,100 coaches and 3,000 volunteers who participated in nine winter sports at the games in Austria.

“We have to begin to do things better, and we knew we had to take this massive leap forward,” said Mary Davis, who has worked with Special Olympics since 1978 and was appointed its chief executive officer last year. “We’ve reached 5.3 million athletes and Unified Sports partners from 169 countries, but there are 200 million people with intellectual disability in the world. We realised that one way to reach them faster and provide better quality of service is with the help of technology like the cloud.”

Lonnie Snyder, Special Olympics’ senior vice president of information technology, said the organisation had a cobbled-together system of aging and unreliable computers and servers when he started about five years ago. Then Microsoft signed up as a partner in 2014, promising to modernise the group’s technology while raising funds and awareness for the Special Olympics mission of creating inclusive communities.

“We have really pole-vaulted,” Snyder said. “We still have limited resources, but now we have a reliable infrastructure and computers, and we can support a Games Management System that’s deployed for thousands of global, regional and local competitions a year.”

The new Games Management System got a trial run at the World Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2015. It’s a database that houses information on athletes, such as their performance history, medical records, contact and family information and coaches. It also runs and manages competitions, and connects timing systems.

By moving the system to Microsoft’s cloud-based Azure platform, Special Olympics managed to avoid outages in L.A. that had delayed competitions in the past.

Until then, World Games results were only posted online twice a day, so athletes often had to wait until the following day to find out their standing and what came next; in L.A., results were immediately posted to the website once scores were official. And in Austria, the new system proved even faster and more effective, scaling up effortlessly at peak times to deliver schedules and results across users’ devices, Snyder said.

The former timing system for swimming events, for example, “went back to the dial-up era, and volunteers would have to take 500 pieces of paper with handwritten results and type them in,” Snyder said. “New technology helps us avoid mistakes due to manual data entry. Now our system is problem-free in Azure, and we’re doing things that were never in the realm of possible.”

With its new cloud-based system, Special Olympics has access to more data – and data analysis – than ever before, Davis said, and it’s planning to mine that data for insights into what health care athletes need, what sports they’d like to see added, what education might be helpful for their families, and how to generate more awareness and participation among spectators.

The organisation has also saved thousands of dollars by not having to build out its own infrastructure for the games – money it has been able to put back into the experience and programmes for the athletes.

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