For some time we have been really keen to get together a group of thought leaders from the events industry to discuss a range of technology related topics. With a fantastic team effort this event, which we called ‘The Gathering’, was held on the 30th of March at Lords futuristic media centre. Each of the four panels was focused on a specific area of technology with industry experts giving practical guidance, their opinion and answering questions from the audience. The notes below highlight some of the points raised but a lot was covered in the five hours so they are just a very small window on the discussions . To keep the discussion about technology in events going we aim to keep the twitter hashtag #eventtech for questions and comments.

Ticketing and Cashless Payments – Tom McInerney facilitated a panel involving Paul Pike from Intelligent Venue Solutions and Darren Jackson from Ticketscript discussing the latest innovations.

  • Many events are now becoming aware of the customer data associated with tickets. The opinion of the panel was in many cases this is worth more than the face value of the ticket as events should be starting to build profiles from their customers which can then be the cornerstone of many other activities (such as loyalty schemes).
  • Loyalty systems may take the form of branded cards or RFID wristbands but the important element to consider is using these in more than just a ‘closed loop’ way, perhaps opening them up for eating out in the local area or purchasing merchandise providing another revenue stream for the event.
  • Paul Pike discussed trials which are under exploration for this year which would see significant steps in making cashless events a reality.

Social Media – Chaired by Ian Irving the panel included Andrew Cock-Starkey from Lords and Jonathan Emmins from Amplify discussing how events can use social media before, during and after an event.

  • Ian discussed how events should continue to focus on using social media as a core element, enlarging the community past just those that attended.
  • Lords Andrew Cock-Starkey talked about how they have developed a large following for their Twitter feed, using it for continuous commentary on matches and a channel for last minute tickets (which can then be tracked back using offer codes to get quantifiable value).
  • There was lively discussion on managing the ‘negative’ aspects of social media too, engaging with, rather than ignoring those who are complaining.
  • Many of the panel thought the key technologies of the future would be live streaming content to those not at the event and ensuring that those attending can access online resources.
The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

The Gathering taking place at Lords Media Centre

Event Vision – Tom McInerney chaired a discussion between Dan Craig, Loudsounds and Dale Barnes from Virgin Media focused on the key technology elements events will be focused on in the future.

  • Dale talked about how as a major brand when he is asked to deliver services in temporary events locations it really helps to have a technology person to engage with and discuss practicalities. The requirements from sponsors will only become greater as events continue to look for ‘partners’ who can contribute to the event not just push product X.
  • The panel discussed how events which take place at the same locations year after year will become more focused on what investments can be made. Not just in terms of water and power but also internet presentation. In many cases arranging service over multiple years can generate significant savings.
  • Dan discussed how events are continuing to invest in backend systems to simplify event management but also share data quickly with suppliers so everyone has up to date information. Tools like Dropbox and Google documents were sighted as invaluable but increase the pressure on IT systems at events.

Applications – Joanna Wales from Ascot Racecourse, Adrian Strahan and Chris Green discussed the key elements to a successful application and the challenges which still surround creating an app which gains traction within what is becoming an increasingly crowded market.

  • The panel shared their experience of working applications released by several large customers, and that by working within the businesses to find the different things the application could deliver was critical to its success.
  • Chris discussed the issues of delivering a ‘cross platform’ application (i.e. one which works across Android, Apple, Microsoft and Blackberry) this continues to be a challenge however planning for a multiple release during the design and creation process can avoid painful re-working later on.
  • The panel discussed the Edinburgh Fringe application as a great example of an application that was really useful and improves the event experience.
  • Many of the audience thought that applications should be free for events, since trying to charge generally puts off those that might find it valuable. Some discussions identified that a good app will encourage more people to attend and get more out of the event.

Real World Experience – Chris Green, Mike Lang and Tom McInerney fielded questions from the audience and discussed how some of the customers they partner with had developed an on-going technology strategy encompassing many of the topics that had come up during the day.

  • Several questions from the audience focused on how smaller events can take advantage of technology without huge investments. Chris discussed how many technology services can be delivered for growing events – the key is to ensure enough lead time as solutions which have to be delivered in a rush tend to more expensive. There is also opportunity to share some of the costs of connectivity between events that use the same locations.

In summary a fantastic day to network, meet new contacts and learn. We hope to run The Gathering again and are really excited about developing the forum and taking on the feedback from the attendees.

It’s almost expected now that along with an event comes a mobile app for the iPhone, Android or other platform. At most events, certainly the larger ones and those outdoors in temporary locations, the enthusiasm for a mobile app soon wanes when the user finds that all they get is out of date information or error messages saying ‘no connection is available’. The simple fact is that the mobile networks cannot deal with data traffic effectively at event sites and this more than anything else leads to poor reviews in the app stores.

The two obvious approaches to fixing this problem are to either improve connectivity or make the app stand-alone so that it doesn’t need connectivity once it is installed on the phone. Improving connectivity via the mobile networks is not really an option, as even with temporary mobile towers the capacity and connectivity available is not good enough to deal with the sort of high density found at event sites and the cost becomes very prohibitive. A correctly designed Wi-Fi network can deal with the capacity and provide a much better user experience but this option may not always be possible in terms of budget.

I have seen more recently a trend to make event apps stand alone, driven most likely because of the connectivity issue, but there are two major flaws in this approach. Firstly the whole point of a mobile app is to offer something different, unique, current and interactive. If you take away the connectivity then you are left without most of those features and risk an app that is stale which, after an initial browse, is closed and forgotten about. The social media generation live in a connected world with a thirst for live information and that feature is what can make an app much more than an electronic programme guide. The second issue with a stand-alone app is that it doesn’t address the problem of downloading the app itself. Although you can try and persuade people to download the app before the event the fact is many will want to do it at then event itself and with a stand-alone app it is often the case that the install is even larger than a connected app as everything needs to be in the app download meaning the download is more likely to fail (and if too large is not allowed to be downloaded) over a mobile network.

There is a middle ground in all of this and it takes a leaf out of ‘mobile development’ from the 1990s when mobility was a laptop (more akin to a briefcase) and a 28k dial-up modem, it seems a lifetime ago now but it did teach developers an approach which is still very valid today. The approach is not earth shattering but it is too often forgotten by many of today’s applications, simply put it just means never assuming the network is available! More specifically it means factoring in the following design aspects:

  • Ability to operate with or without the network
  • Graceful degrade when the network connection fails
  • Local cache of data which updates when the network is available
  • Progressive and background downloads so that the user is not waiting for ages unable to do anything
  • Differential download of data so that only new data is sent
  • Avoiding or minimising ‘auto refreshes’ to reduce network load

Effective implementation of the approaches above will provide a much better user experience as the app operates when the network fails but the user still gets updates when they move into an area with connectivity, with the updates trickling in quietly in the background. There are some very good examples of mobile apps available but far too many still fall over or perform badly when network connectivity is poor and that’s just unacceptable for an event app.

The Event Production Show 2011

Having spent a couple of days last week at the Event Production Show talking to existing and potential customers it’s interesting to note down some of the common themes we are hearing and challenges people are facing around technology.

Underpinning many of the discussions I had was an increased focus on the importance of event connectivity. It has moved from a nice to have, through must have, to critical as more and more services rely on it. With that more organisers now understand some of the challenges in terms of capacity and performance and, for example, weaknesses such as ‘upload’ performance on ADSL and the problem with latency on satellite, which renders VPN and VoIP services nearly unusable. We are not locked to a single provider or service and can offer everything from BT lines through to satellite, WiMAX and fibre, depending on requirements, budget and time.  Understanding what capacity is really required is a critical step in the process.

The cost of connectivity remains a concern but there are a few ways to keep cost under control, firstly book early! The shorter the notice the less options there are, and at short notice services often need to be expedited leading to significant extra charges. Secondly consolidate, reduce the number of lines by using VoIP and use a proper managed network to share and control bandwidth effectively. Lastly look at longer term options – if you are going to be using the same site for several years it is often cheaper to install permanent connectivity rather than temporary services as the main cost is the installation, with the annual rental often much lower than the cost of reinstalling each year. We now do this for a number of customers and manage all the technical and paperwork aspects so that the service is available when needed.

Another common comment was ‘we tried to use 3G but it was a disaster’. Running event connectivity on 3G is a highly risky strategy, at best it is likely to give poor and intermittent performance and more commonly during an event it is completely unusable, even when additional mobile towers have been placed on site. If an event needs connectivity then it needs managed connectivity, not ‘cross your fingers and hope’. The difference in cost between using a 3G approach and a basic professional set-up is not as large as people often think and there are many benefits.

Over the last couple of years the interest in site-wide attendee Wi-Fi has increased significantly and that trend continued this year. Alongside the general desire to allow people to stay connected the other big driver is the use of smartphone apps. Providing an application at an event with no additional connectivity generally results in unfavourable reviews as the performance is poor. The good news is that in many cases extending Wi-Fi internet coverage to the public is not as big a problem as it may seem, provided it is done correctly using appropriate hardware and managed networks with features such as traffic shaping. There are various models for cost recovery including ‘hotspot’ type charging or advertising and branding.

Integration of services is another key issue with production, ticketing, merchandise, bars and catering, security, etc. all having their own specific needs. Bringing all this together successfully requires experience and extensive IT knowledge. Making sure everyone is talking and sharing requirements is part of the service we provide so that you do not need to worry about the fact that the ticketing company require an onsite SQL database and a site-to-site VPN connection to a hosting centre you have never heard of!

Event IT is it’s own specialist area, you wouldn’t dream of letting any old person run your sound system, provide power, operate ticketing or put up marquees, and the same is true of event IT if want a dependable service which meets your needs.

The Etherlive stand saw a steady stream of enquiries for dependable event IT services

The Etherlive team are now in the last stages of planning in preparation for the Event Production Show at Olympia on 2 – 3 February. We are on stand 620, on the right hand side of the main isle not far from the entrance. As usual the team will be ready to answer questions, discuss services and demonstrate equipment. With a Royal Wedding this year and the Olympics next year it is important to get services booked early – we are already seeing a knock on impact from these events, for example lead times are increasing for telecommunication services and this will get worse during the year.

Alongside our normal array of solutions for connectivity, communications, monitoring and interactive technology we will also be demonstrating three new services:

Crew Accreditation System – A contact-less RFID card (or wristband) system which makes managing crews simpler. The system uses a PC or touchscreen terminal to manage crew as they book out keys, radios, plant equipment and doubles as a crew catering system replacing those pesky paper vouchers. Multiple terminals can be used over the site such as in the catering tent and production offices. All the data is easy to manage allowing production to forecast catering requirements and track items quickly.

Event Production Show 2011

Dynamic Secure Wi-Fi – There has been a lot of press recently about the security of wireless networks and even though we already have a very secure system we will launching an even better solution. What’s great about it is that it’s easier for the user but more secure as every user has their own unique encryption key. Aimed at events when privacy is critical it will reside alongside our existing range of wireless services so that you can decide what level is appropriate for your event.

Communications Tower Light – Not completely new as it is in its second year of use by Etherlive but this palletised, environmentally tower light was a great success during the 2010 season so we have been improving it further. Supporting Wi-Fi and cabled networking, public address and CCTV from one unit, it is perfect for quickly deploying technology services in areas with no power. The 2011 unit now has multiple camera options with a new higher zoom and motion tracking enabled camera added to the range; and if you need high density outdoor wireless there are options for up to 750 simultaneous Wi-Fi connections off of one unit.

Take a moment to register here if you plan to come along to the show to speed up getting in and of course if you want to set-up a specific time to meet you can  get in contact beforehand.

We hope to see you at the show!

The issue of wireless encryption ‘cracking’ has been in the news again recently thanks to Thomas Roth and his claim to be able crack WPA-PSK passwords in a matter of minutes. The basic methods used are nothing new, primarily a hybrid brute force and dictionary attack, which essentially is like you sitting at a computer and trying every word you can think of as the password. What was different in this case is the use of cloud computing to harness enormous processing power – enough to try 400,000 passwords per second bringing the time to guessing the password down considerably. This all sounds rather concerning, but is it really?  

If you fit the best lock money can buy to your front door and then you leave it on the latch, can you really complain when someone opens the door and burgles your house? The important thing with encryption is the complexity of the password as the time it takes to crack a password depends very significantly upon the password strength. Roth himself said “If  [the password is] in a dictionary it’ll be very fast, but if you have to brute force it and it’s longer than eight characters and its complexity is okay, it’ll take a very long time.” By ‘long time’ he means years and years, and the longer the password the longer it takes, in fact exponentially longer.  

Security Officer

Security is only as strong as the weakest link

So, nothing to worry about then?…well not quite when you consider the way WPA-PSK is often used. The clue is in the name – PSK stands for Pre-Shared Key – and as it suggests the key is shared between all users. If you take a typical event site where organisers, press and crew require a ‘secure’ wireless network often WPA-PSK will be used, but it’s often not as secure as intended for two reasons. 

Firstly, the password or key is being given to many people and it only takes one person to release the password into the wild and the whole network is compromised. Once compromised the only way to secure the network again is to change the shared password which means all users need to be notified of the new key, not very practical in the middle of an event. 

The second issue is that because the password is being shared between many people generally a short, easy to remember one is used, opening up the network to the type of attack described above. Visit many media centres, event HQ’s etc. and you will see the network password printed on A4 pieces of paper stuck to the wall.  

Network security is often seen as a hassle, along with the “it won’t happen to us” mentality but there are more and more reasons to take it seriously. Prior to the news about the WPA-PSK crack there was also news about a plugin for the Firefox browser that could ‘listen’ to other users’ data on a wireless network (either an open network or one where the key is known). Increasingly at events more and more data is transmitted across the network and much of it is sensitive. Yes there are secondary mechanisms such as VPN and SSL that are used to protect some data but often you will find file shares, websites and other data all unencrypted and open to see on the network.  

We do take network security very seriously and have been offering individual user names and passwords for network access for several years which gives us access control with a much better level of granularity, along with the ability to provide a full audit of users. For 2011 we are going a step further and at the Event Production Show in February we will be launching an additional service known as DPSK or Dynamic Pre-Shared Key. Using this service once a user logs onto the network they are transparently given a dynamic, unique encryption key. This means that all users have a different (and very strong) encryption key, ensuring all data transmitted is well protected and users do not need to know the key or share it with anyone. All the user needs to know is their username and password (which stills needs to be ‘strong’) but if that user’s details are compromised the only impact is to that user and that user’s account can be quickly blocked.  

We understand that every event has different needs and aspects such as network security are a balance between risk and complexity so we have developed a range of solutions to meet those different needs. If you are concerned about the security of your IT systems at events then drop in for a chat at the Event Production Show or contact us for a discussion.

Chip and pin is part of our lives. Four digits and a piece of plastic is all that’s needed to pay for anything from a morning coffee to that expensive watch for Christmas (you have got all your presents by now – right?!) The chip and pin terminals or PDQs (Process Data Quickly) have become the staple of any company who want to take larger payments at events. As the cheque looks destined to bow out (perhaps?) shortly we take a quick look at some of the key points of PDQ machines in a mobile environment as they can be the cause of much pain. 

Merchant Account – Anyone who accepts payments from a card needs a merchant account. Issued by the banks it can be a lengthy application process so leave plenty of time when applying. In our experience to keep a merchant account live you’ll need to have a PDQ of some type – this is typically a phone line based model you can keep in the office. The merchant account and terminal rental have a monthly fee normally around £20. 

Transaction Fees– The downside of card payment are the transaction fees, typically for credit cards these are around 2.5% of the transaction amount. For debit cards the fee is normally a fixed amount of around 35p per transaction. 

Mobile Terminals – If you are going to be using your PDQ out and about all the time then go for a mobile terminal as your default instead of a telephone line based model. The main reason people don’t go for these all the time is because mobile units (by which I mean GPRS connected) have a higher monthly charge just like a cellular data card.

Wi-Fi Chip and Pin Machine

Wi-Fi Chip and Pin Machine

GPRS Connectivity– When looking at a mobile terminal you’ll need to select the right type of connectivity to keep it working. A GPRS terminal works in a similar to a cellular Internet data dongle. Connected to the cellular data network the unit will work anywhere with mobile phone reception for whichever mobile operator you select. This is great for smaller stands who operate at venues or locations where the amount of attendees is not excessive, by which I mean the cellular network will continue to operate. The issue here is as the attendee numbers for the event increase the mobile phone network becomes slower to respond and may become overloaded. We have all experienced not being able to make calls at big events – the same problem exists for the GPRS terminal – it will just stop working, often at a critical point. In 2010 we have seen a significant rise in the number of events that have experienced problems with GPRS devices due to the network being overloaded. 

Wired/Wi-Fi Connectivity – The latest PDQ units are now shipping with Wi-Fi or cabled network connectivity built in. For those people who work at large events when the mobile phone network is not reliable this type of connectivity is a reliable way of ensuring you can continue to process transactions regardless of the mobile phone networks. The challenge here is the event needs to have a Wi-Fi or wired network in place – many of the larger events now do but the best thing to do is check beforehand. 

Short Term Terminal Rental– Many companies like the option of renting PDQ machines for a short period, especially for events where they need Wi-Fi or GPRS units. There are several companies that rent units (including ourselves) but it is important to note there is a lead time of around 14 days to get your merchant id added to the temporary unit and some banks have additional restrictions which need to be removed. For PDQ rental you still need to have your own merchant id. 

So whatever choice you make a PDQ terminal can be invaluable for any business on the road. Increased transaction amounts and greater security are just some of the obvious benefits but beware the pitfalls and make sure you plan well in advance of when you need the service operating. As always we are happy to provide advice on types of machine, connectivity, pros and cons etc. to help you make the right decision for your business.

Last week in the news much was made of a dedicated satellite launch for broadband Internet access (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11846237). Satellite Internet access is nothing new and varying levels of service are available today but this launch, along with a couple of others that are planned, do bring additional bandwidth and some improved services. With this in mind I thought it would be useful to cover the good and bad of satellite Internet and whether it can help at your event.  At a high level the pros and cons are as follows:

Pros

  • Relatively quick to deploy at short notice
  • No requirement for any physical wired infrastructure to the site
  • Relatively high bandwidth (primarily download) can be purchased compared to low-end broadband

Cons

  • Requires line of sight (roughly to southern horizon and an associated Fresnel zone area)
  • Requires alignment (although automatic motorised systems are now available)
  • Very high latency (delay)  impacts usability for some applications
  • Can suffer weather impacts such as rain fade
  • Higher bandwidth tends to require a larger dish
  • Tends to work out very costly for longer duration events

For an event organiser some of these points are very important, for example the high latency makes the use of most VPNs virtually impossible which is a real problem if for example you need to run a ticketing system connected via VPN. VoIP services also suffer with high latency meaning delays and ‘Darlek’ effects. There are some improvements with the latest generation services but the simple fact is that satellites are a long way away and will always suffer high latency. It is also important to not assume a satellite dish will have line of sight – there are many situations where getting visibility to the southern horizon is harder than expected and it is also import to factor in the Fresnel zone, this effect means that a small gap between two buildings or trees may not work as expected.

Not all satellite services are the same. Different satellites have different ‘footprints’ meaning they cover different parts of Europe. Many providers also use contention ratios on satellite services too in a similar way to wired ADSL/Broadband services. There are a range of speed options ranging from consumer type services up to more business/professional levels, some services are also optimised for digital video links rather than web browsing.

So, in summary, when should you use satellite? When there really are no other options. We can, and do use satellite from time to time but it is the last resort and requires careful planning to ensure the service delivered meets the requirements. We always work with customers to review all options and recommend the most appropriate solution.

Spent the day at the UK Festival Conference yesterday, very interesting day with all the key players from across the industry together. A two minute summary/key points list around the different sessions below:

The Crime Busters

  • Partnership between festival organisers, security teams and the police is working very well with lots of up front intelligence.
  • Online ticket scams remain an issue, educate the ticket buyers
  • Festivals are very safe with much lower crime rates than typical towns and cities
  • One area of concern is organised criminals targeting smaller festivals now that the big festivals have well developed crime prevention

Non-Ticketed Events Should Be Banned

  • Overall opinion was heavily in favour of ‘No’ but with some strong points (below)
  • They must be organised by professional, experienced event management companies
  • Understanding the environment, location, draw, capacity, contingency factors are all paramount
  • Licence granters must not be the organisers

Best Practice for Leveraging Brand Activity at Festivals Without Selling Out

  • Expect another year of reducing budgets
  • Move is much more towards ‘experiential’ (hate that word) i.e. tangible benefit to attendees
  • It’s now more than just the attendees, it’s the whole position of the event within the market (especially online) with an appreciation of the broader number of followers
  • Looking for year round association, not just the few days of the event

UK Festival Market Report 2010

  • Market still growing, although exact data hard to define (approx 700 festivals)
  • PRS, Government Policy & Policing costs all possible issues
  • Average age of festival goers 31, average age of ‘first timer’ 18
  • Average spend £363 (inc ticket)
  • Average attendance 2.1 festivals pa
  • Biggest ‘downers’ – bands that clash, cost of food and drink
  • Reasons for choosing – line-up, being with friends, organisation
  • More of – cashless payment, Wi-Fi, festival information and of course toilets.

Making Your Festival More Profitable

  • Big variance and issue around policing costs, no easy answer
  • Focus on the bottom line from day 1!
  • Build and grow in a controlled fashion – you will not get 50,000 people in year 1!
  • Build partnerships and trust with suppliers, who grow with your festival

Battle of the Bands

  • Promoters want the cost of bands to come down, agencies want then to go up!
  • Market is changing now that a bands primary income is touring/festivals rather than album sales
  • Many bands are on the road continuously leading to a ‘staleness’, hence more reunion bands as they are attractive as they haven’t been on the road for a few years
  • It’s not all about the headliners, increasingly it’s about the whole festival experience and ‘like minded’ attendees

Dispatches from the Field

  • It isn’t easy getting to the top, there is no quick route other than a lot of hard work and a true passion for festivals!