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Can AI solve UEFA’s problems?

For anyone remotely interested in football, we can all agree that last night’s England V Bulgaria game, broadcasted from Sofia saw some disgraceful scenes. This is yet another stain on the health of football, enacted by a minority of fans hell bent on bringing the game into disrepute.

It was always going to be a difficult game to manage, historically the Bulgarian fans have ignored the efforts of the #Respect programme to wipe out racism and on this occasion even produced their own “No Respect” shirts on the night.

Those chanting and displaying their disgraceful behaviour were all clearly identifiable which leads to the question of where is technology, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) playing its part in identifying these individuals?

Everyday hundreds of thousands of facial characteristics are being recorded, analysed and stored by CCTV systems in order to track known individuals. We are a nation that has become very familiar with using facial recognition in our day to day lives, such as opening our phones, laptops and even front doors.

Applications such as e-gates at passport control and boarding pass validation at airports, have demonstrated that the technology can be applied in mass transit and assist with identification of individuals and control of restricted areas.

It understood that police and UEFA officials will review footage of last nights game and the disturbances on the terraces, but is that enough? In a sport that has phenomenal amounts of revenue,  should they not be at the forefront of automation and the use of technology that can root out, store and analyse faces of those responsible?

For example, In the Guardian recently the online technology section reported about “Gordon’s wine bar in London’s theatreland”, renowned for its Dickensian atmosphere, but also frequented by pickpockets.  The owner Simon Gordon who took over the family business in the early 2000s, spent hours and hours scrutinising the faces of the people who haunted his CCTV footage. Mr Gordon was frustrated that although he had images from CCTV footage of the suspects, the conviction rate when reported to the police was very low.

His frustration spurred him to launch Facewatch, a fast-track crime-reporting platform that allows clients (shops, hotels, casinos) to upload an incident report and CCTV clips to the police.

The Guardian reports that “Gordon installed a £3,000 camera system at the entrance to the bar and, using off-the-shelf software to carry out facial recognition analysis, began collating a private watchlist of people he had observed stealing, being aggressive or causing damage. Almost overnight, the pickpockets vanished, possibly put off by a warning at the entrance that the cameras are in use.”

This got me thinking. If a wine bar in central London can implement such a system, why are the football authorities not spending some of that hard-earned revenue and getting their house in order? With an automated level of sophistication this will mean that not only can individuals be identified quickly and effectively, but also acts as the ultimate “big brother” deterrent.

By placing enough cameras looking into the stands to effectively capture faces and features, combined with other cameras in public areas, this would provide a rich dataset of individuals that need watching.

Couple this with advanced “AI Bots” reported to be used in online interview apps to review how you answer questions using facial expressions, this is an indication of how comfortable the candidate is at answering the questions given – watch on BBC The One Show.

If this technology could be trained to look for “aggressive – non aggressive” facial patterns, then I expect the authorities scanning all CCTV footage would be able to hone down their searches by some distance.

Given that passport control already employs a turnstile system of allowing access through a boarder, why can’t football stadiums be forced to install a camera at each turnstile. When each supporter approaches, the faces of those expelled from the game are immediately recognised and prevented from entering the stadium.  

The problem of racism and violence at football matches, (but by no means is the only sport or event which has the opportunity for the same behaviour) are that minorities still feel its acceptable to act the way they do. It’s down to the clubs, leagues and governing bodies to do the right thing and make the “Zero Tolerance” message a Zero-sum game, with the help of technology.

I wonder which Club is bold enough to go for it and claim the trophy of being the first to stamp out racism on the terraces for good?

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