IBM PointStream at the US Open tennis tournament, Big Data in the real world

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Content Copyright © 2011 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Accessibility

Those of us who work in Business Intelligence and Analytics find it really difficult to understand why so many people find it difficult to grasp what it is about, and fail to see why it should excite people. Because the basic concepts elude most people, the traditional IT promotion methods of “death by PowerPoint” fail, because people have no framework in their heads to hang the concepts on, so it seems intangible and overly complex.

When you then talk about Big Data, where the volume of data becomes massive, and the sources of data becomes wide and varied, that is really a step too far. So it is really interesting to see how IBM, one of the market leaders in this space, is going about illustrating to both the business world and the broader public the key concepts, by applying insight and analytics to things outside of straightforward business modelling. They are preaching to the average Joe and not to the converted, and to make it even more interesting they are doing it with things that attract a lot of attention.

Last year IBM deployed its abilities with speech recognition and all things associated with machine learning and computer-based intelligence to enter their Watson computer into Jeopardy, a very popular US television quiz programme, based upon a broad spectrum of general knowledge, and to win it against human quiz experts! This year they have shown me a new application of their historic analysis, predictive analytics and data visualisation, which is their analysis in support of the US Open tennis tournament. This is like having John McEnroe and Pat Cash, joined at the hip, and in hyper-drive!

Sports fans like to analyse their sport, to understand a range of key pointers to form, and how the game is unfolding, and IBM are now supporting the tennis fan with in-depth analysis that allows the fan to see a body of evidence that will rival the expertise of even the most seasoned professional ex-player-turned-pundit. This is not about some fancy graphics, with smoke and mirrors behind it, but is about really deepening the relationship between the fan and the event. It is about strengthening the value, as perceived by the fan, of being involved with the event. This is attractive, innovative and, at the end of the day, should cement the bond between the fan and the event. This is about changing behaviour to drive profit, because in a busy world we all have alternative ways of spending our precious spare time, and this makes an event more compelling, and binds us to it.

So rather than just showing the score, the IBM analysis goes deeper; they take data from head-to-head and individual matches going back 7 years and analyse who won and why. If that data does not exist they analyse the styles of the protagonists and use that to provide insight into how the outcome is likely to be influenced. They look at key influencers on match outcomes and rank them and provide those as keys to the match. Very interestingly, in a game like tennis, where the scoring system can actually obscure how closely fought a game is, they have a visual representation of the momentum between the players, and this is maintained in real time so you can see the ebb and flow of the game, and tie that to the identification of decisive moments that are the turning point of the match. Key to all of this is that the results are not presented as masses of tabular data, but are visual, real time and interactive, and indeed they can be overlaid over video feeds of the game.

So why do I find this compelling? This is using all of the key elements of the solutions that have applicability to business being used in a way that is non-challenging, but which will open the minds of all that see it to the possibilities that can be provided by cleverly integrating historic analysis with predictive analytics and data visualisation.

It shows that you do not need to have a brain the size of a planet to understand it. Complex data is being presented in such a way that whether you are a tennis expert, or a casual observer, it adds value and enhances your appreciation and understanding of what is happening. The whole idea of making advanced analytics accessible and natural as an adjunct to activity is made so much more acceptable, with no technical message being offered.

In a few words it is difficult to really do a solution like this justice, but I hope I can convey some idea of how far from being trivial, and a TV gimmick, this is. This is a brilliant illustration of how big data works: masses of data being used, both historic and real time, complex concepts like momentum are presented visually, enabling complex multi variant concepts to be presented in a way that enables the essence to be grasped almost subliminally.

All of these concepts are directly transferable to a business context and, by introducing people to the approach in this accessible way first, IBM are not only showing their mastery of the technology, but also their ability to present complex concepts to as broad an audience as possible. As market leaders you cannot do much more to illustrate why you deserve to be recognised as such. This illustrates perfectly why, if you have masses of data and are sure that there is value in it, but you are struggling to find a way to analyse and present it, so that your C level executives can make better decisions, IBM are people you should be talking to.