The value of data is well understood. However, not every situation lends itself to good data collection. Anyone that has been pitchside at an amateur club game or at a school tournament will know that a heady mix of emotions swirls between the goal posts as well as the ball, which means if an injury happens, there can be a tendency to stand the player back up, pat them on the back, say something about bravery and send them back into the action.
These are important lessons, but if, by accident, that bravado leads to physical and health problems later in life, then it's the wrong lesson. This is where data enters the game - but also Podium Analytics, the data and Low Code technology-driven organization that aims to make sport safer.
Founded in 2019, Podium Analytics is a non-governmental organization that says its mission is to reduce injury in sports. Formed by Ron Dennis, the former CEO of McLaren Technology Group, the Surrey, UK business best known for its Formula One team that made Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and, more recently, Lewis Hamilton world champions.
Dennis was always a pioneer of the use of science and technology at McLaren, so it's no surprise that the sixth team member of Podium Analytics would be a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Damian Smith, CTO, who takes up the story, says:
Dennis is a governor of an independent school and found that they could not field a rugby team due to a high number of injuries.
Following some investigation, Dennis realized this wasn't just an issue at the school he was involved in. He became concerned that this was an overlooked issue that was leading to long-term health problems. Dennis says on the Podium Analytics site:
Safety in sport is paramount, and it's essential that the focus shifts to young people. These early years are where habits are formed, and injuries are first sustained, and this tracks from youth to adulthood, shaping the overall health and wellbeing of an individual throughout their life.
Smith picks the story up again and says:
Podium is making sport safer, but not through the traditional methods of lobbying national sports governing bodies, but by setting up a research institute at the University of Oxford that will grow to a team of 40 researchers.
To date, Podium Analytics is working with the universities of Oxford, Bath, and Exeter to research sports injuries in 10 priority sports. The aims of this research and final outcomes are to make sport safer, whilst remaining fun and inclusive. Podium Analytics is also working with schools and clubs across the country as well as governing bodies of sport, including hockey, rugby and athletics. Smith says of the need for Podium Analytics:
We are really good at putting elite athletes back together again. But Podium’s focus is on 11-18-year-olds, and if we want to make a step change in making sports safer, then we need to do it for children.
In addition, our Institute is currently completing some research, endorsed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), on the economic impact of concussion.
Podium Analytics ran into a defender-sized barrier early in the game; Smith says:
Under Health and Safety Law, Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), the requirements for reporting injuries doesn’t mandate the reporting of sports injuries in schools. So our first challenge was getting data.
Dennis had identified a blind spot in non-professional sports. For 11-18-year-olds involved with professional team development programmes, particularly in football, there is a good understanding of growth spurts and the training and rest is shaped by this knowledge, but many schools or amateur clubs don't have this insight. In order to overcome this, Smith, for the second time in his career, sent Low Code technology out onto the pitch. He says:
The first app took four weeks to develop and deploy to teachers. We needed to build something to prove the concept of what we are doing. It needed to be something that was easy to use so that a teacher could record an injury. We also needed to check if it was even possible to collect this type of data in the school environment.
Smith used Low Code application development platforms as Head of Information Technology at the England and Wales Cricket Board, using OutSystems to develop biomedical performance apps. Faced with the need to put a Podium Analytics App into the hands of teachers and club coaches, Smith once again called OutSystems off the bench.
Data has dominated Smith's career, having held roles such as Global Head of Data Quality, Data Warehouse Programme Manager and Head of Management Information in consumer goods and financial services organizations. This has formed an architectural approach to data in his technology leadership, he says:
Architecture is massively important. Apps will come and go over the lifetime of an organization as new ways of doing things arise. So the key thing is to make sure that you get the data out of the tools and integrate it so that the organization gets maximum value.
Smith says it is vital organizations understand when data is being created and captured in the business.
Sport is, of course, a results-based business and Ron Dennis is feted in motorsport for the results that McLaren achieved under his stewardship. So what results will Podium Analytics become known for? Smith says:
As a parent of a son that plays a lot of rugby, one of my Holy Grails is to create a dose model for head injury with our Research Institute at Oxford, with the aim that I could have an alert to my pitch side device to take a player off the pitch, or to reduce their training for the coming days and weeks based upon the load they experienced during the session.
We want to be able to understand how young people recover from injuries such as concussion.
In a digital and data-centric society, active living is vital. Our working lives require little of our bodies and much of our brains. So active living and sports are, I believe, set to become even more important; however, an injury, especially when you are young, can prevent an active lifestyle, which in turn can impact mental health and even economic productivity. Using apps and data to tackle this before it becomes an issue for individuals and society is exciting and to be saluted.
In a previous life, I wrote about motorsport and know full well that Ron Dennis is a transformational leader who embraces new methods in order to get results, ranging from something as seemingly mundane as taking your own floor to each pit lane to adopting new materials and technologies. So, to me, it is no surprise that Dennis would be in pole position with using data to make sport safer, and if his record in motorsport is anything to be guided by, others will follow his lead.
Podium Analytics also demonstrates the role of Low Code in the modern organization. Requirements change at the speed of a striker's shot on target, plus data has to be collected in many different environments, whether a cold, wet Saturday afternoon pitch or a warm velodrome. The requirements for the data collection process need to reflect the environment and the end user; what remains the same is the organizational outcome - a need to collect data or process an action for the customer or end user. The flexibility Low Code offers Podium Analytics is clear to see, and as CTO Smith says, has allowed the organization to gather speed and demonstrate its purpose - a game all CIOs and CTOs play.