A few weeks ago, a friend was asked to present about datafication in performance analysis. This set me off thinking about the processes I had heard about and seen.
I started off revisiting Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s 2013 book Big data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work, and think (link). In it they discussed at length Matthew Maury‘s career in the U.S. Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments. In their words “He saw patterns everywhere”. They added (2013:75) “He had a number of ‘computers’ – the job title of those who calculated data. He aggregated data. He looked for patterns and more efficient routes and sea-lanes.”
I liked their consideration of data in the light of Matthew’s journey all those years ago. They noted:
He was among the first to realise that “there is a special value in a huge corpus of data that is lacking in smaller amounts – a core tenet of big data”.
Astounding that it was done with pencil and paper and highlights “the degree to which the use of data predates digitization”.
Data refers to “a description of something that allows it to be recorded, analyzed, and reorganized”.
To datafy a phenomenon is “to put it in a quantified format so that it can be tabulated and analyzed”.
We built the building blocks for datafication many centuries before the dawn of the digital age.
I thought this account resonated powerfully with Simon Eaves’ accounts (2015, link; 2017a, link; 2017b, link) of Henry Chadwick (link) and baseball. Both are stories of digital pioneers. Simon notes that perhaps as early as 1858, Henry tried to record and analyse as “a first step towards a sport performance analysis to assess relative merits”.
I do think reading these authors about Matthew and Henry together gives real feel for what was occurring in the nineteenth century in the United States of America … at the dawn of what has been a remarkable process.
I hope to write more about this process and provide more background to datafication as the centuries pass by.
Last week, I had the good fortune to correspond with Richard Pollard. Our email exchange coincided with the publication of Richard’s most recent paper titled Invalid Interpretation of Passing Sequence Data to Assess Team Performance in Football: Repairing the Tarnished Legacy of Charles Reep (2019) (link).
I have been following Richard’s work since the publication of his paper on skill and chance in ball games co-authored with Charles Reep and Bernard Benjamin in 1971 (link).
I will write a much more detailed post about Richard’s work but in this brief post I want to affirm his part in the story of the emergence of the observation, notation and analysis of performance in association football.
Along with Neil Lanham, Richard is a custodian of Charles Reep’s experiences as a football analyst. Both have a vital role to play in demystifying Charles’ place in a history of ideas and practices.
Richard’s statistical insights and vision over the last forty years combined with Neil’s experience of recording oral traditions (link) make it possible to compile a rich account of their experiences in the early years of football analysis.
Neil has a book awaiting publication that, like Richard’s 2019 paper, should address some of the profound misconceptions about Charles’ work and locate it within Neil and Richard’s involvement in analysis (link).
Like Richard and Neil, I believe Charles’ work has been misrepresented and unfairly demonised. I hope to continue to share accounts of Richard, Neil and Charles’ work in the spirit of Sam Wineburg’s suggestion that each generation “must answer for itself anew why the study of the past is important” and “remind us why history can also bring us together” (link).
I did meet Charles at his home in Torpoint but did not make it to his shed. I am immensely grateful to Richard for sharing this picture of Charles with his archive of papers at the bottom of his garden. Somewhere in there is his roll of wallpaper that is a hand notation of the 1958 World Cup final that Charles notated in real time at the final. He transcribed his A4 paper notations onto a roll of wallpaper in an attempt to capture the flow of a game that had seven goals and included two goals scored by Pele (link).
There is no record of what happened to this archive. We can do much better with his legacy.
Last week, NASA announced that “One of the most successful and enduring feats of interplanetary exploration, NASA’s Opportunity rover mission is at an end after almost 15 years exploring the surface of Mars and helping lay the groundwork for NASA’s return to the Red Planet”.
Opportunity landed on Mars on 24 January 2004. It was designed to last 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres. It exceeded its life expectancy by 60 times and traveled 45 kilometres. Its resting place on Mars is, by delightful serendipity, Perseverance Valley.
Opportunity’s history is a great metaphor many endeavours. Last week on hearing about the end of NASA’s contact with the rover, I thought about all those who have charted the world of performance in sport. The image of Opportunity’s tracks on Mars provide a great reminder of the tracks each of us follow in our own journeys of discovery.
Our tracks in analysing performance come from some very basic technologies and, in the case of some of the foundational ideas about performance, remain as relevant today as they were when they were first recorded.