Sport, data, and an unspooling privacy problem

Denham Sadler
National Affairs Editor

Australia has a chance to be ahead of the curve and get the settings right to prevent the further invasive collection of data in professional sport, according to Professor Toby Walsh, the chair of a new working group looking at the issue.

As part of the Minderoo Foundation’s push into big tech regulation, an expert working group has been put together to deliver a discussion paper on the use of data in professional sport, in collaboration with the Australian Academy of Science.

The group, chaired by Academy fellow and UNSW Professor Toby Walsh, will outline the current baseline data collection practices and expectations in Australia, and lay the groundwork for recommendations in the future to better protect the privacy of athletes and ensure there is adequate oversight.

“We need to try to get ahead of the curve. Australia always punches ahead of its weight in many sports, here we have an opportunity before the technology is widely used and abused to try to get things right, and at the centre of that conversation is athletes’ rights,” Professor Walsh told InnovationAus.

Wallabies: Professional sports presents some tough privacy issues Credit: David Molloy

The working group will be looking at issues surrounding the current levels of data collection in sport, future plans, the associated benefits, specifically around health and injuries, who owns the data being collected and the privacy of athletes.

The current levels of data collection in professional sport are “invasive”, and extend well beyond just game-day, applying to nearly all aspects of an athlete’s life, Professor Walsh said, with little in the way of regulation.

There’s very little in the way of restrictions. It’s very much being driven by technology – the data collection has been put on steroids now. You’re getting all of these wearables and the ability to do motion capture in a lab and out in the playing field,” he said.

“They’re capturing more information than they know what to do with. At the moment it’s anything really goes. It can become a technological arms race.”

According to the group, there are few formalised processes or protections currently in place around the collection of data in sport, and the research and discussion paper will focus on the rights of athletes, the involvement of third-party tech vendors and the impact of this on fair competition.

The new project represents an “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 sport, with a discussion paper to be delivered early next year.

It will also be hearing from athletes on their perspective, including Greater Western Sydney AFL player Matt de Boer, who is involved with the project.

“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,” Mr de Boer said.

The project is also likely to raise larger questions on data collection in workplace settings.

The expert working group includes University of Western Australia associate professor Jacqueline Alderson and University of Western Australia associate professor Julia Powles.

The Group is now accepting submissions on the issues surrounding data collection in sport, with the window open until mid-October.

Professor Powles is also the director of the new Minderoo Tech and Policy Lab, based out of the University of Western Australia. The Lab is part of the Minderoo Foundation’s recently launched Frontier Technology initiative, which has established a global network of institutions and experts to investigate big tech and data issues.

The research priorities are based on tackling lawlessness, empowering workers and reimagining technology, with a focus on reigning in tech giants like Facebook and Google.

Photo credit: David Malloy –

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