The Information Revolution – All For One, One For All

Have you watched those Formula One programs where they shift to pictures of technicians in the pit, scrutinising a batch of screens to see which lights are flashing correctly? Any dips can generate calls to drivers to slow down, speed up, or even pull out of the race before the engine blows up. Tiny gadgets in the car generate those signals.

Closer to home, aging folk like this correspondent can visit their “imaging” factory and then have their doctor inspecting X-rays and ultrasounds of their insides on a screen at his surgery within minutes, even seconds if they so wish.

At the weekend, monitors in the grandstands are busy following players around the park, courtesy of little GPS tags stuck on their jerseys. Are they due for a spell? What caused that injury? Who has the stamina to last out the season? And more.

Or, less obvious but just as vital, some guy in an aircraft engine factory on the other side of the world is checking what is going on in the innards of that Qantas plane you see getting ready for takeoff. The engines are fitted with sensors, lots of them, and they send messages out constantly for the airline and the engine manufacturer to check what’s normal and what’s not.

Whatever the function, the information is available in a flash and can then be actioned or stored for later analysis and comparison. In the case of the aircraft engine, the data will come not just from Qantas but from thousands of other engines running in many airlines’ planes around the world. All put together and assessed for trends.

All you need to start the ball rolling is a sensor – either mechanical or human will do – to pick up the information, record it and pass it on.

That’s how greyhound data might work if everyone collecting it subscribed to the same system and did not stash it away behind a Restricted Entry sign. Once it goes into the Finishlynx system you could send it anywhere, immediately, for later use in publicity, performance checking, injury analysis, track improvements, your bank, or whatever. One starting point, unlimited end uses/users. All in real time.

If you are of a certain age, you might remember that the TAB started off by paying dividends on the day after you made the bet. It took them that long to organise all the calculations. Today, Tabcorp does that on the spot, which is why you see dividends flash up within seconds of the judge announcing the finish order, and the bar code on the betting ticket does the rest. Even more details are available on the net if you want to look.

As Qantas boss, Alan Joyce, says about his engine readings, “that takes some computer power, that takes some resources behind it, but you can imagine the airline that gets it right, how much profitability you could get out of that optimisation”. (The Australian 26 Oct).

General Electric (the engine manufacturer) vice-chairman John Rice points out how they do it. “We make decisions every day about inflight engine performance based on comparing one engine with the population. If you restrict that to a country’s engines you’re going to be making a third of the right decisions because you don’t have enough data to make that call”.

So it’s not just about kicking the tyres, so to speak, but about using a wide collection of data to validate future developments and improving everyone’s profitability. Qantas’ data is its own, of course, but it and all other airlines can profit by comparing it with worldwide aggregates which are available to all.

The other side of this coin is that the data can be processed by experts in the firm that makes the engine, leading to better outcomes than if each airline did the job locally. In turn, that leads to GE making better engines and attracting more customers. It might be a technical organisation but it will not get far if it doesn’t anticipate what customers need.

Currently, every man and his dog have their own ideas of what to do with race data and how to produce a formguide. There is no good evidence that any of them has queried their customers to find out what they value or how they like it presented, or even who those customers are. Well, GRNSW did employ a consultant to advise on how to lay out a formguide but the vast majority of its information came from trainers (who obviously look at formguides but seldom massage the information as a serious punter might). As one of their respondents, I found that the consultants appeared not to have a keen idea of what makes racing tick. Anyway, much of the print is too small to read comfortably, which is pretty basic.

But none of that discussion gets around to the multiplicity of uses to which race and related data could be put. For example …

  • What are good and bad racetrack designs?
  • Where is my dog best placed, and over what distances?
  • What is the effect of travel on dog performance?
  • What is the effect of high versus low frequency racing?
  • Where and how are a range of injuries occurring?
  • Why do some races attract more betting than others?
  • What race slots are better than others?
  • How many races are ideal for the available dog population?
  • How many dogs are actually racing at any one time?
  • Why are dogs less robust now?
  • What breeding strains or sires do better than others?
  • What changes are occurring to litters, dog weights, sex distribution etc?
  • What are the current trends in kennel sizes and locations?
  • What is the impact of imported sires?
  • What proportion of dogs make it to the (TAB or non-TAB) track?
  • How long are dogs’careers?
  • What actually happens to the remainder?
  • What are the movements of dogs from one region to another? And why?
    • And so on.

      All of which could emerge from a well structured, centralised database, one which talks the same language to everyone, including the public and the Stud Book.

      Too hard? Not a bit of it. In fact, the industry should know what to do because it went through a similar exercise back in 1994, only to see the NSW administration knock it on the head for really strange reasons. Here is one: “Our clubs don’t have good enough computers”. They were Commodores which ran on floppy disks alone. Another was “privacy laws might be compromised if the information was spread around”. Hmmm.

      That refusal, and later duck-shoving, has cost the industry millions of dollars in lost efficiency and lowered service levels. Unfortunately, it looks like continuing for the moment as we have a Victoria v The Rest competition looming. That was never a goer for the AFL and it won’t do racing much good either.

      What we need is a statesman, an industry leader, to stand up and call for a charge into the 21st century. Let the state racing authorities continue what they do best – processing licences, organising drug tests, paying out prize money and so on – and create an independent new unit, geared to today’s commercial standards, to distribute information to customers. In this case, those same authorities would also be customers of the composite national database.

      It would be much cheaper and much more productive. What more could you ask for?

      To put things in perspective, note that watching car races, going to the football or flying to faraway places are activities that compete with racing for people’s time and their recreational dollars. The industry has to shape up or miss out.