Data Collection from Athletes in Australia Needs to Be Regulated: Discussion Paper

Data Collection from Athletes in Australia Needs to Be Regulated: Discussion Paper
Steve Milne

The amount of personal and sensitive information collected from Australian professional athletes in recent years is allegedly beyond what is scientifically proven to benefit them, a science academy and law school paper has argued.

“There are significant limitations to what technology can measure and infer about athletes,” said Jacqueline Alderson, tech director of the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab and expert in data and technology use in sport, who led the paper’s scientific review.

“Remote tracking and wearables offer insights into gross player movement and effort metrics, but we are still some distance from that technology providing robust performance improvement and injury prevention.”

The paper “Getting Ahead of The Game: Athlete Data in Professional Sport” by the Australian Academy of Science and the Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab at UWA Law School involved a 12-person Expert Working Group consisting of experts in sports science, sports medicine, artificial intelligence, law, policy, and social science, as well as athletes, aimed to initiate a national conversation to identify gaps and risks in sports data governance across football codes, basketball, netball, and cricket in Australia.

According to the paper, personal and sensitive data collected from sportspeople both on and off the field, including sensor and video-based monitoring of athletes’ bodies during competition and training, and intimate details of mental health, sleep quality, and food intake, and menstruation.

Dr Jason Weber, a professional strength and conditioning coach and a sports scientist, said he’s been involved in professional sports, primarily rugby union, Australian football (AFL), and soccer, for the past 25 years.

“When I started, it was a stopwatch and a pen and paper. That’s what we had; that’s what I learnt with,” he said.

“And then, by around about the end of 2003, was probably the first time I got hold of what you'd now call IMUs, so GPS, accelerometer, gyroscope units, and we started tracking players.”

From that point, it has quickly escalated, he said, to the point that now people are standing in front of motion capture video cameras and doing movement screens, having angles measured at certain levels of accuracy, and then conveying the data back to staff.

Weber added that even at the bottom end, the use of GPS to track athletes is widespread, not only at the professional level but also at the academy and development levels.

“There’s a lot of data that people don’t know how to use,” he said.

“I would be comfortable in saying there’s a lot of data being produced by companies that the company doesn’t know how to use.”

Weber is concerned that in his professional career to date, he’s never been party to a conversation in which staff are asked what they’re doing with the data they’ve collected, where it exists, and how it can be kept secure.

“I think we need to get to the point that people accept that data is about someone and that we should respect it,” he said.

“And therefore, we have a number of procedures in place that should be standard about how we look after that data, the portability of it when an athlete moves to ensure that it goes, and then the anonymising of that data post their departure and what happens to it.”

Meanwhile, Co-chair of the Expert Working Group, UWA Associate Professor of Law and Technology Julia Powles, echoed Weber’s comments from a legal perspective, saying a key discovery through the project was the considerable distance between how sports currently manage athlete data and existing legal requirements.

“Athlete data collection is almost completely unregulated, leaving it open to serious risks including privacy and security breaches, commercial exploitation, and misuse that impacts on careers and livelihoods,” she said.

“This is all the more startling when assessed against the minimal gains this powder keg of data delivers, in terms of improving player performance, development and wellbeing.”

The discussion paper concludes that developing this conversation will provide an opportunity for Australia to set an example in sports data governance, including limits around athlete data collection and use from legal, organisational, and ethical perspectives.

Steve is an Australian reporter based in Sydney covering sport, the arts, and politics. He is an experienced English teacher, qualified nutritionist, sports enthusiast, and amateur musician. Contact him at [email protected].
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