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Data analytics is cool in the NFL; is it creepy in your office?

By ERIC COHEN
Computers
Rochester Business Journal
August 22, 2014

What does “the Internet of Things” mean to you? To most people, the phrase is uninspiring. So what if your television, refrigerator, garage, bird feeder and toothbrush are all Internet-enabled? That’s all well and good, but it’s not life-changing.

In contrast, put every (professional) movement of your favorite sports hero or goat on the Web, and perhaps that’s a different matter; just imagine what it will mean for your fantasy league! If professional and collegiate sports are finding benefit in putting sensors on players and their equipment, perhaps business should be paying a little more attention.

In this last column in a series on plenoptic reporting and data warehouses, I want to share another “ripped from the headlines” example of the explosion of publicly available data. While a real-time stream of statistics on Buffalo Bills wide receiver Chris Hogan is of interest to many, the availability of frictionless—or at least aerodynamic—data for business has many important implications.

New or mainstream?
Many of today’s hot technology crazes are just adding some buzz to the old and familiar. Many supposedly revolutionary “cloud” or “big data” solutions are yesterday’s Web-based systems or simply focus more on the detail in sophisticated enterprise resource planning that was previously ignored; they’re not new, boundary-exploding options. Even putting “things” on the Internet is largely more of the same.

After all, Carnegie Mellon University put a Coke machine on the Internet during the ’Net’s earliest days; why stroll all the way to the machine to find it empty or the soda recently restocked and still warm? Our own Rochester Institute of Technology was cited by PC Magazine as No. 3 on a list of 10 greatest hacks of all time for its superior Internet Coke Machine implementation. That’s only one spot behind the hack made famous in the movie “Apollo 13,” based on the eponymous crippled space mission!

But from one movie, let’s move to another, “Moneyball.” A small-market baseball organization with a limited budget used data, evidence and analytics to field a competitive team. “Sabermetrics” is the term for this analysis of historical and in-game statistics, with Bill James as a very visible advocate. The story of “Moneyball” inspired Giuseppe Vinci in an effort called VolleyMetrics, focusing on correlating specific volleyball skills with in-game scenarios and used by the U.S. Olympic men’s volleyball team, among others. In basketball, two dozen teams employ analysts or work with statistical consultants, and teams live and die by their analytics approaches.

The NFL is going one step farther. It announced recently that new sensors will be installed in player uniforms. The system, called Zebra MotionWorks, captures motion and other statistics with a tolerance of 6 inches. Zebra indicates that 17 stadiums will be equipped to capture and transmit the tracking information—but not Ralph Wilson Stadium. Still, EJ Manuel and Mario Williams will be Internet-enabled, and perhaps that is a different thing. Six inches isn’t accurate enough to support first-down measurement of the football, but it could prove to be very interesting on referees, field markers and, of course, players.

From sports to your industry
From scouting, experience, intuition and gut feel to objective, evidence-based decision-making, there’s no question that sports analytics and sensors increasingly supplement or even replace traditional sports management. A major contributor is bag data, the explosion of new data sources and new uses for existing sources, which track players in stadiums or on the court; measure performance during tryouts, practices and games; and monitor athletes’ health and physical condition in real time and in a great variety of ways.

Of course, the big question is how you deal with all of this. The average business is not equipped to work with neural networks, complex events processing, artificial intelligence, data mining and other means of evaluating all this new information, separating the meat from the gristle and incorporating it into decision-making processes.

Not everyone is in sports and entertainment, working in the public eye. For the NFL to equip players with sensors is one thing; the value in that industry of statistics—whether for gambling, fantasy football, salary negotiations or any number of other processes—is without question.

What about your business?
Sports is a very public environment. Athletes are accustomed to having every move analyzed and criticized. In contrast, the average salesperson, factory worker, professional or even civil servant may have privacy concerns about having movements tracked by motion-sensing input devices (such as Microsoft’s Kinect) or even having video that can do facial recognition. The recent outcry about Monroe County and other urban police departments tracking license plates shows resistance to such tracking—even if your credit cards, E-ZPass or other items are already being used for similar purposes.

It’s one thing for a coach to determine that the quarterback or pitcher or sweeper is acting with vastly reduced efficiency late in the game and to replace that player with someone fresh. For employees to feel so scrutinized as they perform audits or assemble birdhouses or interview prospective employees might, or might not, be perceived as something very different.

Still, the situation has to be evaluated. We want to know where our favorite football player is 20 times per second, but we don’t care to learn about our investments until 45 to 90 days after a reporting period ends? Accounting can be much more like the instrument panel on a vehicle than like the rear-view mirror.

How can your business use data today to operate more efficiently? Big data and real-time analytics could change your operations and relationships with your stakeholders, in ways you might not expect.

Eric E. Cohen, CPA, of PwC, is spending his time reinventing how accounting information is shared, with XBRL International.

8/22/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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