Is the Sport and Fitness Sector Ready for the Open Data Revolution?
Posted: Mon, 02 May 2022 09:15
Coming out of the pandemic we are at a crossroads, a defining moment in which the health and wellbeing of our communities is at risk through inactivity. The Lords Select Committee's 2021 report on the National Plan for Sport and Recreation Committeeheard that 12.5 million people in England were classed as inactive between May 2020-21, over a quarter (27.5%) of the population. This figure is even more stark in lower socio-economic groups, where people are 19% less likely to be physically active.
The sector is also facing another challenge: as found in Sport England and UK Active's Digital Futures report (2021), the sector is still at an "experimental stage" with digital, with the organisations scoring an average of just 55% for digital maturity and effectiveness. Additional research from Sports England points to a more tangible problem: results showed that 20% of adults have been put off doing physical activity because it was too difficult to find or book facilities online.
All is not lost. That same House of Lords report states that "technology has the potential to transform the way people stay active and how they access facilities and physical activity opportunities". Furthermore, in their Digital Futures report of 2021 Sport England and UK Active jointly said that "we encourage the sector to be 'open to being open' and to seek ways to collaborate with all relevant parties to help achieve common goals together."
Coordinating investment in physical and digital infrastructure
There have recently been announcements of large investments into new facilities: £155 million was put aside for community football pitches in the Autumn budget; a further £22 million pledged to upgrading public tennis courts in September; the RFU recently completed a programme of building 28 all-weather pitches.
However in the Digital Future report, a significant 84% of operators surveyed said that they "don't have a digital strategy that's up to date, complete, ambitious and supported by an achievable roadmap", despite a predictable 98% who thought that "digital will play an increasing role in the future".
To complement this funding there should also be a digital strategy giving better access to everyone in the community. But the challenge is significant, with the growth in the expectation of the consumer outstripping the ability of operators to innovate, and as a result we are finding that "it's challenging for the sector as a whole to meet the scale and pace of change required."
So, how do we bridge this divide?
Firstly, the government, governing bodies and other funding organisations should promote open data, by way of OpenActive, as a way to encourage the growth of a collaborative ecosystem and create resilient data infrastructure. The House of Lords report put this notion to parliament recently by stating that "Sport England should make funding to organisations contingent on them providing information for the Open Data initiative"further emphasising the increasingly important role they believe that OpenActive can have in opening up access to sports and physical activity.
Secondly, operators can learn the value of a collaborative strategy which will help them adopt a more digital mindset. When integrations are made possible the value can be easily seen: we at Playfinder have been able to show a of lift Schools Plus' bookings by 18% by integrating with their system since launch in 2021, and in the over £1m worth of additional bookings we have generated for GLL, 77% have been at off-peak times. Furthermore, the case study with GLL showed us that there was also a boost in participation in underprivileged areas, the average IMD rates decreasing by 24% over the same period to well below the local average.
Finally, the technology providers who supply the operators with management systems should acknowledge that they are, according to the Digital Futures report, "one of the key barriers in delivering the digital experiences that they and their customers expect". The common theme amongst these systems is their lack of collaborative technology such as APIs, but adoption of the OpenActive opportunity and booking data standards (as Playfinder's booking system Bookteq has done, along with others such as Spawtz, Schools Plus, School Space, Fitune and Played - with many more coming in 2022) which have been crowdsourced from within the sector, would see this gap being filled once and for all.
OpenActive is a community-led initiative that encourages a wide range of digital innovators, both commercial and non-commercial, to make sport and physical activity opportunities more accessible to everyone. It is based on data standards that allow for data sharing between digital services, and is currently being implemented in leisure contracts such as MCRactive to "make it easier for anyone to search over 10,000 classes, sessions and activities that are available every week" in the city (Paul Burt, Chair of GM Active, 2019).
OpenActive operators are currently publishing upwards of 125,000 activities a week, in 1300 locations across the UK, catering for all types of sports, classes and activities designed to give people the opportunity to get active in their communities. School operator Schools Plus increased bookings of their facilities by 18% on average after launching an OpenActive integration with sports marketplace Playfinder.
OpenActive has received over £3m in funding by Sport England since its creation in 2015 and is supported by the Open Data Institute (ODI), with Sport England remaining committed to open data, saying in their Uniting the Movement Strategy in 2021 that "open data is applied as a foundational block of our work with partners to tackle the big issues".
CEO of Playfinder