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Man City drags Big Data into Big Football

And Google+ grabs sweaty ballers for its Hangouts...

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Open ... and Shut Football is the world's most popular sport by a crushing margin. Yet for all the money and attention it gets, the beautiful game has remained doggedly anti-technology, eschewing video replays or goal-line technology despite the prevalence of such tools in other sports. One club, however, is opting to make technology a central hallmark of its game, and may well force other clubs to follow suit.

Unfortunately, that club is not my Arsenal.

No, it's Manchester City, the perennial "other club" in Manchester, which in recent years through barrels-full of oil money has bought an all-star team (and a title to go with it). The Citizens (or "Man City"), as the team is colloquially called, have recently set some soccer industry firsts, opening up their player data and more recently establishing intimate fan forums on Google+ Hangouts.

The Google+ Hangouts move is cute but unlikely to move the needle much on Man City's aspiration to retain its Premiership title. After all, only 10 participants can engage with Man City's chosen representatives (this week it's Judas Iscariot… former Arsenal star and now a Man City executive Patrick Vieira). The hangout is streamed live so others can watch, but it remains an interesting but not necessarily sport-changing sop to fans.

Man City's Big Data initiative, however, is much more promising.

Presented in .csv format, Man City's data trove is a "time-coded feed that lists all player action events within the game with a player, team, event type, minute and second for each action, together with the x/y/z co-ordinates for each event", thereby enabling "heat map, touch map, passing matrices and mapping attacking play and distribution".

This is the same data that Man City credits with guiding it toward the best defensive record in the Premiership for the past two seasons. (The more cynical among us would argue that no amount of data could have helped the old cash-strapped Man City to that record, but why quibble just because my own club refuses TO SPEND SOME !%!%!% MONEY, ARSENE!!!)

Such data has been available for a fee to others, but hasn't been widely accessible to the public. This has now changed, and will likely spur other clubs to take similar actions.

Given that professionals have already had access to this data, the real value isn't in gifting opposing teams data about one's performance. It's rather a way to reach out to as-yet unknown but potentially useful sources of data crunching. As Gavin Fleig, Man City's head of performance analysis, explains, the decision to open up its player data is a way to enable the "Bill Jameses" of the world – James being the man whose sabermetric work in the 1970s arguably revolutionised baseball:

Bill James kick-started the analytics revolution in baseball. That made a real difference and has become integrated in that sport. Somewhere in the world there is football's Bill James, who has all the skills and wants to use them but hasn't got the data. We want to help find that Bill James, not necessarily for Manchester City but for the benefit of analytics in football. I don't want to be at another analytics conference in five years' time talking to people who would love to analyse the data but cannot develop their own concepts because all the data is not publicly available.

This is a great example of one cardinal principal of Big Data: "Don't throw any data away." Data storage is cheap while analysis of these data is potentially priceless, even (pardon the pun) game-changing.

Personally, I'm hopeful that the Citizens' data will be used by some enterprising Arsenal fan to crack the code on how to spend peanuts and still crack at least one Manchester club's stranglehold on the top of football. But whether or not this pipe dream materialises, it's impressive how Man City is challenging soccer's technology status quo, embracing technology as a way to interact with fans and anonymous data scientists. I don't love the team, but I love its technology leadership. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Nodeable, offering systems management for managing and analysing cloud-based data. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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