Interview: Craig Donald, CIO, The FA

How the combination of FA data science expertise and Google Cloud analytics is giving England a fighting chance of winning a trophy

Sponsored Feature The Football Association (FA) has built an application and development suite – Helix – which has been hosted on the Google Cloud Platform (GCP) for the last five years. Its purpose is to provide Technical Directorate staff associated with both the England men's and women's football teams with quick and convenient access to a wealth of player performance information pulled from different sources, giving coaches unique insights which can help them select the best players and squad available at any one time.

The Register recently caught up with The FA Chief Information Officer Craig Donald to find out more.

John Malachy: When did The FA start working with Google Cloud on this project? What were you using to support The FA's player performance data analysis requirements before hooking up with GCP?

Craig Donald: We've been using Google Cloud Platform (GCP) at St George's Park since before I joined the FA, so probably coming up to five years now. But the formal relationship around Helix and the analytics platform and tools has been in place since May 2019.

Most of the processes we replaced were being run on spreadsheets – some on Google Workspace (formerly Google Apps and G Suite) – but much of it was separate and done manually on paper. What we've been trying to do with GCP at St George's Park is collate all of the data that we gather into one place so that our coaches, and anybody else that involved in making decisions around our senior teams, is to give them all the information in one place to be able to make those decisions quicker. And also to pull together disparate bits of information that they may not be used to seeing side by side in order to spark new insights which hopefully give us an edge when it comes to competitions.

John Malachy: What sort of player performance data is The FA collecting? What's the end game, if you pardon the pun?

Craig Donald: The end game is to is to get a very detailed view of the performance of each of our players, either those who are active in the senior teams or those who are coming up through our pathways. So that we can get as holistic a view as possible, on the performance of all of the talent that we are able to select from. That means combining data from all over the place.

There's a lot of connected hardware in our gym at St George's Park for example, so we can see performance data on how people are using the machines there. We also gather data from the vests and other wearable devices that players use in training sessions, and verbal feedback from coaches and physios and so on. It's about pulling all of that information together into one 360 degree view of the player that helps us to really understand their talent, where their strengths are, and then absorb that into a squad perspective.

We also spend a lot of time watching videos of squad members playing for their clubs and that's where some of the interesting statistics come in. We get broadcast Premier League footage of any game our players are in and tag all of the data, chop it up and make it available in the app. So anything we identify as a set piece can be tagged in the video can be pulled out. If you want to see a particular set play for a particular player, you can select all of the corners they have taken for example. We can view all of those from any match played in the last season, but also archived footage from previous seasons.

It depends on what sort of data is available but there are some places like Hudl that also collate data like how many yards players run in a game that we can use too. The data is not always digitised – as you know it varies depending on the club and league as well. But whatever available data sources they offer we will ingest and make it available to our coaches, and the wrapper we put around all this technology is Helix.

John Malachy: I guess all of that means The FA is storing and processing thousands of gigabytes, petabytes of data - why doesn't it host it in-house?

Craig Donald: We don't want it in our environment, the numbers [volumes] are just too big for us to store effectively. It's not just a storage perspective either. Our applications need to be elastic as possible. We need to scale up our storage and compute power when it's needed, especially as we prepare for tournaments, then scale down when it's not, over a summer break for example.

We will really start to see our application usage to scale up for the Women's Euros and the Men's World Cop later on this year before it drops off a little bit. There will be weeks where we have to ingest a whole lot of data on a certain day, when the Premier League finishes playing games on a Sunday night for example, and have it all available on a Monday morning. So that elasticity is really, really important for us and there was no way we wanted to build that [storage and processing architecture] internally, it just doesn't make sense for us. We want to scale up and down when we need to and that's where GCP comes into its own and really helps us.

John Malachy: Was it also cheaper for The FA to use Google Cloud for its purpose rather than build and manage the infrastructure for itself?

Craig Donald: Yes, absolutely, otherwise we would have to design for the largest peak I suppose. With GCP we can just turn it [server and storage capacity] on and off, or allow the applications to expand and contract automatically as and when they need to. Clearly that brings us financial benefits and we are trying to avoid investment in hardware that just sits in the corner and burns electricity. This is a great solution that gives us the compute power when we need it but also saves us money when we don't.

John Malachy: The FA been running this for three years now, what other benefits have you noticed? Is there anything that needs tweaking or improving?

Craig Donald: The financial benefit is an obvious one but I think biggest factor is one that we almost take for granted, ie the time saving. It literally gives our coaches a one stop shop for all the technical performance information they need, which they never had before. What we've discovered is as we go through this process is that one of our IT team will come and say 'this is great,. but can you get me this or that'. So the project isn't really complete because there is always more information people are looking to gather [into the analytics platform] and see in one essential portal.

John Malachy: Is there anything in the pipeline in terms of new Helix or GCP features, not yet implemented but The FA has its eye on?

Craig Donald: There is, but I'm not sure we can talk about it, because of course, some of this stuff is also a bit of a competitive advantage for us. We try to share as much as we can, but obviously we don't want our fellow federations from around the world trying to glean any insight from that as well. All I would say is that we are continually looking for more data to bring into this, to allow our analysts and our coaches to look at that data in different ways. But I wouldn't want to share what else is coming up.

John Malachy: How do you measure success in this type of system, that England wins it this time?

Craig Donald: That's a very binary way to measure success. There's no way we can claim that technology has won it - I think I think we might get laughed off the pitch if we tried to do that! So measuring success is really quite difficult, I think but perhaps for us it would be the ability to pull people through the pathway effectively. Because what you're seeing is that we can start wherever data is available to track people from, from the grassroots level to a certain extent, and track that all the way through their career with the national teams. Winning a major tournament is very much a goal of the FA and I'd love to claim that technology was responsible. But I don't think we can get away with that - we can contribute to it.

Biography

Craig joined The FA in July 2018 and has responsibility for the organization's entire Information Technology estate.

With degrees in Philosophy and Theology, Craig started his career in IT support for a global software company, gaining his first management role less than eight months later. He has since worked in IT management across many industries including defence, software and hardware manufacturing, and global multi-channel distribution. Most recently Craig spent six years in the aviation industry, firstly managing the entire application estate for Virgin Atlantic and subsequently operations and corporate systems for easyJet.

Outside of work, Craig is a keen scuba diver, is passionate about health and fitness, and spends many evenings enjoying London's theatre scene.

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