Experts call for a national conversation on use of data in Australian professional sport

Australia has a historic opportunity to set forward-looking data governance standards to anticipate and respond to the largely unchecked acceleration of data capture, aggregation and analytics in Australian professional sport, according to leading experts.

The lack of oversight in how data is being collected has implications for athletes’ rights and protections, the organisational practices of sporting organisations and third-party tech vendors, and the state and stakes of fair competition in professional sport.

The issue will be examined by an Expert Working Group announced today by the Australian Academy of Science and supported by Minderoo Foundation. The project is being coordinated in collaboration with the newly established Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab at the University of Western Australia, which is directed by domain experts in data in health and sport.

The Expert Working Group and associated sub-groups will establish the current baseline of data collection practices and expectations in Australian professional sport, and set the stage for future recommendations regarding standards, regulation and oversight.

It will include distinguished experts in sport science, data science, law, ethics, social sciences and humanities, and include Fellows of the Academy.

Academy Fellow and UNSW Professor Toby Walsh, Chair of the Expert Working Group. Photo: supplied

Academy Fellow and UNSW Professor Toby Walsh is Chair of the Expert Working Group. He said despite the rapid increase in the use of performance and other data in professional sport, integrity, privacy, access and other issues around the use of data weren’t being properly analysed.

“While sports data provides many benefits such as improving performance and reducing injury, there are significant risks to the rights of athletes, such as their privacy and the power relationships between athletes and sporting clubs,” Professor Walsh said.

“This certainly isn’t about hitting the brakes on the use of data in professional sport but ensuring its responsible use. Australia is well-placed to be an international leader in this space.”

Co-directors of the Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab are Associate Professor of Law and Technology at UWA’s Law School, Julia Powles, and Associate Professor Jacqueline Alderson, a sports biomechanist who leads national and international data and AI/machine learning in sport projects. They said the establishment of the group will initiate a public policy conversation about an issue as significant as the issue of drugs in sport.

“Currently, there are few formalised processes in place to approve or oversee data collection and use in Australian professional sport,” said Dr Powles.

“The exponential increase in invasive, high-resolution data collection and data-informed practices not only on the sporting field but in nearly every aspect of the everyday life of athletes has dramatic implications throughout and beyond sporting careers.

“A national conversation about these issues is long overdue-both for sport itself, and for larger questions of data use in workplace settings,” said Dr Powles.

Including the athlete perspective will be crucial to the success of the overall project. AFL player Matt de Boer from the GWS Giants said he was excited to be involved in the initiative.

“Data collection and use in modern sport represents a huge part of our professional careers and needs to be carefully managed taking into account multiple perspectives,” said Mr de Boer.

Former Hockeyroo triple Olympian and current AFLW High Performance Manager Kate Starre has witnessed firsthand the rise of data collection and analytics in sport over the past 25 years. “Data is important, but we need to ensure that it always serves athletes and the performance teams around them.”

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