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Who Owns the Data?

Posted By Megan Morgan, Assn. of Sports Analytics Professionals, Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, March 22, 2017

As the 11th Annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference was taking place in Boston the first weekend in March, bringing together thought leaders and innovators from across all disciplines on and off the field in virtually every sport, several other meetings and conference were taking place around the world and one question pinged on the radar on all of them: “Who owns the data?”

In the sports landscape, the question is complicated in that it is applicable to multiple domains and constituencies.  Generally any data being collected about an individual that can be tied to the individual is with consent; everyone has clicked on “terms and conditions” and “privacy policies” for their online transactions, and team sports athletes have collective bargaining agreements and contracts to protect them.  It is the downstream use of the data where the alarm bells may start to ring.

At the Sloan Conference, as Nate Silver was interviewing Adam Silver, this very subject came up.  Nate asked Adam if players would one day be using wearable technology in games, and the expected follow-up questions such medical privacy, CBA issues, what data makes it to the public domain (broadcast relevance), were addressed.  The NBA Commissioner said, “yes, we will get to a point where players will use wearables in games… because of all of your follow-up questions, we determined that collective bargaining, with just a few owners and a few players and some lawyers around a table, was not conducive to coming up with the right framework.  We said we both have an interest in doing this; let’s empanel experts – physicians, technologists, etc. – let’s come up with a standard so that it’s not just any wearable…so that we have belief in the data. We are going to move there in conjunction with the Players’ Association, with a protocol that protects everyone.”  It was clear that in the foreseeable future NBA players will be using wearable technology in games, and it was also clear this is too convoluted an issue to solve in the window of time the league and the union expected to come to terms on everything else on the table during the collective bargaining process.

On the same weekend, there was a technology conference in India at which an Internet of Things panel discussed in depth who owns the data generated by IoT devices; everything from the data generated by smart automobiles to smart household appliances to municipal technology (red light cameras, toll trackers, facial recognition software) was discussed.  Regardless of who winds up owning it, knowing what to do with the data, how to mine it and use the insights to inform the next round of decisions is the real value, as Dan Rosenbaum noted from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona here.

A significant distinction relevant to wearable technology used across the sports industry is this: the device data versus the physiological data.  It is reasonable to expect the technology partner to want to retain co-ownership of the device data, such as battery life, range, accuracy, and such to be able to maintain a robust product development process.  However, the specific physiological data of the wearer is not necessarily relevant to the technology company’s R&D process, and the wearer could expect some privacy.  The collector of the physiological data, however, be it the athlete’s team or equipment sponsor, may also be a right’s holder to that data, and that is where ownership could get murky.  For team sports, as Adam Silver alluded to above, any further dissemination would fall into some version of collective bargaining.  For athletes in individual sports, or working with another party, that is not the case.  The athlete is on his or her own to negotiate the narrowness of the audience to whom data can be distributed. 

As for marketing data, the public has come a long way in being comfortable with standard practices associated with digital transactions.  To a certain degree, individuals implicitly agree to surrender some of their privacy simply by engaging digitally (it says so in those Terms and Policies everyone’s certainly taken the hours to read through); they’ve agreed to be “tracked” online, or to have their personal information recorded and perhaps even sold to a third party, or to have their “friends” lists identified.  If, like above with the manufacture of the wearable device, the holder of this data is using it to optimize a user experience or improve a product, that seems to be a welcome part of the deal.  In the sports industry, creating better fan experiences, optimizing communications and direct marketing materials, and special offers and contest alerts, are all examples of beneficial outcomes of strategic data analysis.  However, where those alarms will go off is if the holder of the data is selling it to the highest bidder with no regard for the ultimate impact on the individual.

While these are just a few examples of the types of data collected on an average day in sports, they represent only the very tip of the data iceberg.  To date, industry feedback has indicated that maintaining secure data warehousing, implementing robust privacy policies, and using the data for mutually beneficial outcomes are among the best practices an organization can implement.  When working with third parties, whether hardware or software vendors or marketing partners, the obvious answer to “who owns the data?” and what each party is at liberty to do with is, read the contract.

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