KL2017: Reporting individual sport results deserved better planning

During the recent SEA Games I was frustrated with the difficulty of finding information about schedules, athletes, and results of the various events. The official website for the Games looked nice but offered little real information. What info was there was usually hidden in PDFs and fancy graphics. Event results, for example, were either not available at all or simply reported the gold, silver, and bronze medal winners. Data surrounding the events such as preliminary results, and full information regarding the various games and races were simply not available though some are there now in some form.

It's unfortunate that such a large public event suffered from almost complete radio silence when it came to providing detailed information about the Games but it is not uncommon. An afternoon of research revealed that information about sport in Malaysia in general is hard to find.

'Big Data' has become something we're used to having. We decide when to leave home for an airport pickup after checking an app on our phones. Running low on fuel? An app can direct us to the nearest petrol pump. We can Google almost anything that we can think of and get instant answers. We expect information to be available to us and presented in ways that are useful.

In sports the need for data is no less than in any other area. This becomes evident when an event such as the SEA Games is staged. The media attention on the Games raises not only awareness and interest in the various competitions but also the expectations of the public over what and how information about the event is reported.

Which brings us to the KL 2017 website. I was reminded of Robert Pirsig's comments in his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance regarding form versus substance. The information on the KL 2017 site looked good, eye candy. But information was difficult to find and when it was there it was presented in a form that was almost impossible to use.

Look at the swimming results for a heat of the 50m freestyle for women:

The first thing you notice on the page the image above came from is that there is no information grouping. Both heats of the women's 50m free are provided (not numbered as Heat 1 or Heat 2 by the way) but the final is somewhere else on the results page. The results are listed chronologically, as they happened, making the results page a giant mix of events and images like the one above that list every event in no manageable way. This effectively strips any meaning from the data and completely ignores that the only reason to have heats in the first place is to establish a list of finalists. The final heat of the women's 50m free should be listed with the results of the two preliminary heats if the information is to make any sense at all. Unfortunately the finals heat of the women's 50 free is somewhere else because it occurred in the evening finals session of the meet.

The next thing you notice, which is probably the most annoying of all, is that there is no way to find the event result you might be interested in except by scrolling through image after image of individual race results. Grouping information in ways that matter and minimizing scrolling is a web standard that should never be ignored.

The third thing you notice is the way the athletes times are presented. In the graphic above the time for the first athlete is listed as "00:00:25.7700000".

Who writes times like that? Understanding that 'result' takes a while because you have to figure out that the athlete's time was actually 25.77. Why not simply report it that way? That's the way it came out of the timing machine. That's the way the swimming federation will report it to FINA, the international governing body for the sport. That's the way it appeared on the scoreboard at the pool. Why was there deemed to be a need to encode the time with a lot of leading and trailing zeros on the official website?

Finally, we come to the 800m freestyle for women. Unless one understands how swimming competitions are run they might think that there were two gold medal winners in this event as shown below:

In swimming we call this a timed final event. It's different from a preliminary/final event in that the athletes only swim the event once and results are based on times from that one swim. You'll notice that one heat was swum in the morning and the other at night, sort of like a prelim/final. But it's not.

Ammiga, from Thailand, won the evening heat but took only second in the event overall. That's because the Vietnamese athlete, Thi Anh Vie, had a faster time from the morning heat and since the 800m freestyle is a timed final event the fastest time wins.

This is not even mentioned on the result page however. The 800m freestyle heats are listed along with every other race result with no context provided.

Why are the results reported this way? My guess is that whoever wrote the web pages for the results was good at designing websites but didn't know much about sport management or web usability when it came to publishing sport result information.

Each sport needs to have its particular information published in a way that fans can understand. This means that the web developer must either understand the sport itself or realize that there already exist ways to publish information for various sports. One size does not fit all where sport results are concerned.

It's safe to say that this one size fits all method was intended because at first the results were reported by simply listing the gold, silver, and bronze medalists in each event. While this is important information it does not meet the standard of reporting true results. Listing medalists may be 'results' in the Games context but real results include everything that happened in each sports tournament or meet and they must be presented in a way that makes sense to the sport.

The Games aren't over yet but the sense I'm getting from watching the various competitions and reading press reports is that Malaysia has organized and is running a truly top notch event. It's exciting to see Malaysia's climbing daily medal count. But that's only part of the story of these Games. It's also important for fans to know how athletes did in their respective competitions.