When Data Scientists Become First Round Draft Picks


I'm from Ohio.  A place where the Wright Brothers invented air travel, hometown to Olympic great Jesse Owens and a pretty well-known inventor by the name of Thomas Edison, and my kids' all-time favorite… the birthplace of the hotdog!

Now maybe it's my Ohio roots that have made me a sports and technology junky, but these two sectors have been on a crash course for some time, and I believe that this year's World Cup may serve as the tipping point.

In an article entitled, "Germany's 12th Man at the World Cup: Big Data," the author describes how the German national soccer team partnered with SAP to use big data and analytics to analyze massive amounts of player data and create custom match scenarios.  With this system, the Germany coaching staff was able to target key performance metrics that enabled them to devise strategies for exploiting weak links in their opponents' setup.

Now the use of technology / software to analyze player performance is not a new phenomenon and team Germany's story reminds me of a 60 Minutes episode I saw almost 10 years ago entitled, “The Secret of Their NFL Success.”  In this segment, Bill Belichick and John Fox, two NFL head coaches, described how they were using software to analyze their teams and opponents in a similar fashion described in the team Germany article.  The difference now, however, is the vast amount of data that can be processed and the analytical capabilities of these applications.

When I compare the use of big data in the sporting arena to what we're doing at GE with the Industrial Internet, the similarities are staggering.  In the same manner that professional sports teams are experimenting with solutions to get the most out of their critical assets (i.e., players and coaches), GE is helping industrial firms in sectors such as aviation, oil and gas, and mining, extract latent value from their operations and critical equipment assets around the globe.

Regardless of the industry or the application, incorporating the use of data and analytics provides an organization with the ability to move from a defensive to an offensive posture.  For example, rather than waiting for an alarm limit to go off on a critical piece of equipment like a mining haul truck or a gas turbine, GE's Mine Performance solution provides customers with the ability to predict potential failures months to weeks before they occur.  At its core, big data solutions are about transparency and providing the right information to the right person at the right time.

Germany's World Cup final opponent, Argentina, had arguably the best player in world on its side and for Germany to win; it would have to contain Lionel Messi.  Messi is a $50MM a year asset and Germany's ability to devise a game plan based upon trends and vulnerabilities not visible to the naked-eye is, in my opinion, one of the keys to their championship success this year.

Now as a point of clarification, I want to make it very clear that I by no means believe that Germany successfully won the world cup because they had a fancy software package. The coaches and players won the world cup; however, I believe that their big data solution provided a level of transparency that made the team smarter and more prepared than their opponents.  Technology in isolation is not a silver bullet, but when combined with subject matter experts the possibilities are endless.

Only time will tell how engrained sports and technology will become, but if I had to guess, I believe the day is coming soon when the data scientists will be on the victory stage with the coaches and players hoisting those championship trophies in the air.

My only hope is that one of those trophies makes its way back to Ohio!