Monday, February 16, 2015

The Thrill of it

Image source: freeimages.com

Big Data has permeated every industry. There’s no denying it. From the way our food is grown to scoring the perfect airline seat, someone somewhere has strung together an algorithm that calculates efficiencies to get us closer to what we want.

Remember that fantastic movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt? The 2011 film based on Michael Lewis’ book told the story of the Oakland Athletics’ pioneering use of scientific principles and maths to win at baseball. Both the book and film spurred a fair bit of speculation about whether sports managers could eventually be ousted by Big Data and technology. Now almost every big sports team has someone doing the analytics and feeding into strategy for that competitive edge. In the lead-up to the preparation for the 2011 World Cup All Blacks’ assistant coach Wayne Smith and statistician Alistair Rogers and NZRU's senior scientist Ken Quarrie uncovered a bunch of fine details about how to deploy their players from diving into data.

I’ll admit that even though I’d like the winning streak of my favorite teams to be more predictable, sport itself would be terribly boring if it were reduced to numbers. Human-decision continues to dominate the game, as Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains in a recent article on The Guardian.

First, data will only give you the numbers. Interpretation of those numbers requires intuition; intuition that only humans have as a result of expertise and experience. Data can help refine our intuition, but on its own it remains trivial.

Second, humans have emotions. A coach can provide leadership, empathy and recognition, and can make athletes want to run faster and jump higher. Data can’t lead. It can help diagnose problems, but it can’t fix them. It certainly can’t make you want to fix them.

Finally, humans are charmingly unpredictable. Data can help us make better predictions, but it will not make humans more predictable than they already are. Unpredictability makes sports exciting. It’s the thrill of it.

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