Big Data, Big Leagues

Big data reached a new plateau in public consciousness recently.  Cheap data storage and analytics mean that our behavior can now be tracked and correlated in remarkably fine-grained ways.  That’s already being done for security reasons on computer networks, and in the hunt for terrorists, but it’s been controversial.  Privacy groups are using the creepiness factor to fight such uses.  But big data is going to lose a lot of its creepiness now that it turns out to be a key tool in … judging basketball players.

The technology was originally developed to track missiles. Now, SportVU systems hang from the catwalks of 10 NBA arenas, tiny webcams that silently track each player as they shoot, pass, and run across the court, recording each and every move 25 times a second. SportVU can tell you not just Kevin Durant’s shooting average, but his shooting average after dribbling one vs. two times, or his shooting average with a defender three feet away vs. five feet away. SportVU can actually consider both factors at once, plus take into account who passed him the ball, how many minutes he’d been on the court, and how many miles he’d run that game already.

It’s a very cool tool. Big data can create maps that show where a player is on the court when he typically shoots — and where he is when he actually makes his shots.

Here Fast Company shows where Kevin Durant is when he shoots:

And here, it shows the much more limited set of locations from which he reliably sinks the ball:

In Europe, though, it seems likely that this tool would have to survive scrutiny under the data protection directive. (What could be more personal than a camera that follows you around the court and records your every move?)

And, under the directive, fans would be denied the chance to do this kind of deep analysis of their team’s performance — unless each player consented to the collection of this personal data, and to the use of such data to evaluate the player’s performance.  He’d even have to be given the right to “correct” the data if it didn’t accurately reflect his performance.

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