On those cold wintery mornings, with darkness on the track and a chill in the air, Australia’s finest are going through the motions.
With the Olympic Games edging closer, four years of training, trialling and talking is almost over, as athletes go for Gold in Rio.
Amidst such a sharpened focus, a new discipline is forming in tandem, as analytics takes centre stage in a world of increasing competition and diminishing margins of error.
Behind the runners, long-jumpers and swimmers of Australia stands BizData, one of the premier Microsoft Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing services providers across the country.
Utilising Microsoft technology, the power of predictive analytics is transcending industries, as businesses large and small embrace a data driven culture.
“We’re talking about the democratisation of data,” Microsoft managing director, Pip Marlow, said. “It’s about putting data into the hands of many and driving that data driven culture.”
Speaking at the official Australian launch of Microsoft SQL Server 2016, Marlow said under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft was also undergoing an internal transformation, built around the notion of being more data focused and motivated.
“We’ve changed our DNA under Satya’s guidance to be more data driven,” Marlow explained. “Firstly, we’re pushing away from a world of hierarchies to move into the network, ensuring that knowledge does not sit at the highest point of an organisation.
"It’s about how we can provide those tools and information to the fringes, to ensure people have the information and knowledge to make the best decisions.
“Secondly, we’re moving from inputs to outputs, which is about less reporting and more about doing - truly understanding its impact with an organisation.
“Thirdly, we’re moving from a world of operating within a predictable environment to one that allows us to be successful in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s about learning to understand the weak signals and take advantage of the changes within the marketplace.”
During the launch, Marlow explained that Microsoft SQL Server 2016 equips customers with real-time operational analytics, rich visualisations on mobile devices, security technology and hybrid Cloud scenarios.
Delving deeper, Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise Lead, Toby Bowers, said the release arrives at a “critical time” in the Australian market, with data analytics, machine learning and Cloud exerting a “stronger influence” within the marketplace.
“Businesses need a solution that will help them manage their data efficiently to generate competitive insights,” he explained.
Australian Institute of Sport
As outlined during the launch, Bowers said an organisation is only as “effective as the people it includes and the tools they’re equipped with”.
“The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) recruits the country’s best athletes, and it’s now using technology and data to get them on more podiums, more often,” he said.
The AIS partnered with Microsoft and BizData to address a critical challenge for elite athletes: how to train effectively without becoming ill or sustaining avoidable injuries.
"We can lose up to 20 per cent of an athlete’s training time due to injury and illness,” AIS Deputy Director for Performance, Science and Innovation, Nick Brown, said.
“And when they don’t train, we know they’re often unable to meet performance targets. We partnered with Microsoft and BizData to help answer a question - how could we know if an athlete was likely to be injured in the next three days?”
Consequently, through the help of BizData - using an Azure SQL Database powered by Azure machine learning - the AIS is using predictive analytics and machine learning to better understand the relationship between training loads and injury and illness.
“We now know that an athlete needs to maintain a high to moderate chronic training load,” Brown explained. “Basically, they need to stay fit long-term and not have any sudden peaks or troughs in their training.
“Using the data and analytical approaches we’ve developed, we can have athletes training and competing more consistently, and losing fewer days to injury and illness.”
In echoing Bowers comments, Brown said the goal of the AIS is simple: to get more out of its elite Australian athletes - “to get them on more podiums, more often”.
While innovation comes in many forms at the AIS, specific to predicative analytics, Brown said the organisation captures information from 2,000 athletes each week - including about 300 data points per athlete, or 600,000 data points a week - who are preparing for the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio.
“We collect data on how much they trained, how they felt, how well they slept, their physiological data for the day and physiotherapy information,” he explained. “And all that data is stored in one place – our Athlete Management System.”
For Brown, the power of predictive analytics allows AIS to estimate when an athlete might perform well, or become injured or ill.
“The Microsoft and BizData project is still in the pilot testing phase, but it is showing promising results,” he said. “For the pilot test, the data gets uploaded each night through an Azure SQL Database connected to Azure Machine Learning.
“It is run through our custom algorithm, with the Power BI Dashboard updated at six o’clock in the morning. Azure ensures the data is secure and used solely for the pilot test.
“We’re still learning, but we are now seeing true positive signs on athletes who may be injured in the next three days. This will allow us to get up-to-date information to athletes’ coaches so they are able to make training decisions that morning.”
Following such early success, Brown said a rollout to coaches and physiotherapists "appears to be a reality" in the near future.
“Data will help inform decision-making,” he said. “We have a lot of really experienced individuals at the AIS, so data will help our coaches and athletes make better, informed decisions and perhaps shift some paradigms.”
As Brown explained, sport is steeped in tradition, which while important, can always improve.
“We’re helping inform what training practices will look like and learning how we can help reduce injury and illness in the future,” he added.