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Sports standards bodies compete for converts

By IPTC Editor Jonathan Engel

London (England) - July 2012 -- Healthy competition in sports is spreading beyond the field of play, as two rival standards for reporting sports results seek to win supporters in this Olympic year.

One of those standards, SportsML, has been developed by the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC). The other, the Olympic Data Feed (ODF), is championed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Meanwhile, at least two other players in the sports standards game are raising important questions for the two main contenders. One is the BBC, with its newly developed web displays for representing sports relationships, for example linking team members, teams, and leagues which is based on their new sports ontology.

A second participant is, the initiative for improved mark-up of web content backed by the major search engine providers Google, Yahoo and Microsoft; with the help of sports broadcaster ESPN and Google, it has turned its attention to improving the definition of sports information.

Representatives of all four groups were present at a recent IPTC meeting in London to discuss the development of sports reporting standards.

While both SportsML and the ODF nurture global ambitions, the standards were designed for different purposes and with different structures. SportsML was designed as a generic model for reporting all sports news, notably scores, schedules, standings, and statistics, with common core elements and plug-ins for separate sports. In contrast, ODF was built starting with details tailored for specific events.

SportsML reflects "the hierarchical nature of sports" across the globe, said Paul Kelly, director of software development at XML Team Solutions and chair of the IPTC's Sports Content Working Party. For instance, he said, "we know seasons contain sports events which contain teams which contain players, etc. SportsML captures that model and it has proven robust."

"We had that overall structure, and then when the need has arisen we've gone into the plug-ins for sports-specific details," added Johan Lindgren, of Swedish news agency Tidningarnas Telegrambyra (TT), another member of the working party. "If we have demands for things coming from one sport, but we see they have general use, then we try to put them in the core."

Taking a different approach, the ODF focuses primarily on describing results, said Jean Fèvre, an information architect at Agence France-Presse (AFP) and a member of the IOC technical committee that promotes the standard.

"The goal was to have, when we show the results, the same syntax, the same tags," he said. "So when you understand one sport you normally are going to understand all sports."

A feature of the ODF is different message types that apply to all sports, for instance, one detailing the participants in an event, and another providing live updates as the results unfold.

These updates can be quite detailed, Fèvre noted, for example recording when the clock stops and starts in a basketball game.

Unlike SportsML, the ODF "does not strive to model sport," Kelly said. "It strives to model sports messages for a large event like the Olympics."

The competition to establish a global standard for sports reporting is being played out in two key arenas -- among the federations that govern individual sports and among the media companies that distribute and publish sports content.

The IOC Technical Committee is explaining to the federations the benefits of producing results in ODF and "how they can customise ODF for their own use," Fèvre said. "We will try also to define some new sports, some non-Olympic sports, to define vocabularies for Formula One and cricket, to see how these sports can be managed by ODF."

Kelly said the IPTC is also targeting the sports federations, and said he would be meeting with many of them at a conference next month in Quebec City.

Adopting either system is less straightforward for news agencies and publishers, Lindgren from Sweden's TT news agency noted, as many use proprietary systems and may not be prepared to invest in the required changes. But he added, the business case for using an industry standard is clear "for anyone who has a need for that type of detailed mark-up."

Of course, whether that standard is SportsML or ODF will depend largely on how each standard adapts to the needs of individual sports. 

Fèvre estimated that 20 to 30 media companies receive ODF results at the moment, with the number set to expand at the London Olympics. Kelly said that about 80 to 100 media groups are regular users of SportsML.

Both Kelly and Fèvre acknowledge that the standards they represent need improvements to attract wider adoption. Kelly added "it would be interesting to try to reconcile the requirements of both specifications. This could be a goal for the next major version 3.0 of SportsML."

SportsML needs to be fully synchronised with the IPTC's G2 family of mark-up languages to take advantage of work on common elements like persons, concepts, names and locations, Kelly said.

It also needs to develop more detailed terms to describe tournaments and competitions. "We can use some more flexibility there," Kelly said. In addition, the upcoming 3.0 version of SportsML needs better definition of the various participants in sports events, whether they be officials, coaches, cars or even dogs (for racing).

At the same time, "We do need some more granular codes for various sports," Kelly said, noting in particular the variations of sports such as cross-country skiing.

Against the background of the BBC's development of a sports ontology to display relationships on its website, for instance among people, events and locations, Kelly said he and the working group were looking at ways to make the next version of SportsML "more ontology friendly."  

BBC representatives at the conference said a key advantage of its approach was that sports content was freed from traditional constraints of web navigation, and when defined by metadata associations could be repackaged for use throughout the BBC.

Kelly said he was also contributing comments to's initial work on defining possible sports classes, such as SportsTeam and SportsAthlete.

For his part, Fèvre noted that the ODF needed to widen its coverage in non-Olympic sports and improve the often-confusing documentation on using the ODF structure.

At the IPTC session devoted to sports reporting, at least one media group suggested that the ODF would need to consider other changes as well. John O'Donovan, Director of Technical Architecture and Development at Britain's Press Association, said that some of the schema elements in the ODF -- such as medalists -- didn't apply to everyday sports coverage. In addition, the structure would need far more detail for popular sports like soccer, where the PA wants data on every pass and every touch in top league games.

As in many areas of information management, the challenge for sports reporting isn't a lack of standards - it's selecting the most appropriate standard to meet the requirements. With the backers of SportsML and the ODF keen to widen the appeal of their respective solutions, it looks likely that this competition may run for some time.



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