Little guys triumph in big data with Olympic ticket alerts

As much as the Olympics have succeeded in being a celebration for Britain, the ticketing process has held it back from its full potential. But independent computer programmers have shown the organisers how simple solutions can translate seemingly unmanageable data into something digestible.


The much-maligned Olympic ticket website, powered by Ticketmaster, has creaked under the strain of demand, after staggered re-releases to the public of tickets not used by athletics federations. The clumsy search function and the unreliable user interface make it almost impossible to tell whether tickets are available or not. They seem to come up with innumerable ways to disappoint you.

But necessity is the mother of invention, and where Ticketmaster’s system has fallen down when asked to do something it wasn’t built for, individual members of the public have used creative thinking to fill the gap. The Twitter account @2012TicketAlert has provided a stream of real-time notifications when tickets go online, while a second site,, allows users to set up alerts for individual sessions.

The problem has been that tickets have been released in small batches, without warning, at times when huge numbers of people have flooded back into the market to buy them. The official website provides no simple way for consumers to see when this happens, or which tickets are available at a given time – instead they have to search periodically by sport, date and venue and hope to get lucky.

The unofficial alert apps by no means make it a certainty that someone wanting a particular ticket is going to get it – but they do inject an element of fair play by giving those who are trying hardest the best chance of succeeding. They also make it more likely that a given ticket will eventually go to someone who is specifically looking for it, and will value it.

It took a while for the London organising committee to come to terms with this – to begin with they confected reasons to block the apps, before realising they had no sensible grounds to object.

These are good examples of how creative solutions can be applied to big data, to present it in a way that’s more meaningful. Like Locog, commercial organisations need to be more open to third parties using their data in this way, because it is innovation from outside that is most likely to realise the value of the data.

Unfortunately, this isn’t yet happening. As Marketing Week has reported, the government’s Midata scheme hasn’t yet convinced businesses to hand over the keys to the locked doors where their data resides.

They have their reasons – mostly commercial sensitivity, presumably – but their reluctance to be open could also cost them sales. As the Olympic ticket apps show, sometimes other people are better than you at understanding what your customers want from you, and helping them to get it.

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