The Edmonton Oilers look to gain an edge with analytics & hackathons

The Edmonton Oilers are mining for gold, and they want you to help them do it.

Last Thursday they launched the Oilers Hackathon 2.0, an analytics competition that hopes to harness the collective intelligence and passion of Oilers fans to surface valuable information that could ultimately help to improve the team.

The Oilers challenge for Oil Country in the newly launched Hackathon 2.0 is to conjure up the proper methodology to solve one of four questions the team’s analytics group has created. Naturally you’ll need the statistical information to back-up your formula and that’s why the Oilers are opening their information vault to anyone with an analytical mind and a love of hockey.

The hackathon is a great opportunity for math-geeks-slash-hockey-fans to engage with the team in a different way. But as Kevin Lowe told me when we discussed the competition, it’s also a recognition that having data is just part of the puzzle. “It’s all find and dandy to have the data, but it’s what you do with it that matters.” The Oilers no doubt have some ideas about what to do with it, but they know others do as well.

oilers hackathon

This idea of tapping into the “wisdom of the crowd” is hardly new, and one of my favorite stories on the topic comes from Don Tapscott’s book Wikinomics. In the first chapter, he tells the story of Goldcorp Inc. and the decision by its CEO Rob McEwan to tap into the expertise outside his organization. McEwan told his head geologist the idea: “I’d like to take all of our geology, all the data we have that goes back to 1948, and put it into a file and share it with the world. Then we’ll ask the world to tell us where we’re going to find the next six million ounces of gold.”

It was a gamble, but with the company struggling McEwan was determined to try something different. The “Goldcorp Challenge” was launched in March 2000 with $575,000 in prize money available. The contest was a big success, as Tapscott explained. “Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, it catapulted his underperforming $100 million company into a $9 billion juggernaut while transforming a backward mining site in Northern Ontario into one of the most innovative and profitable properties in the industry,” he wrote.

The use of statistical analysis in sports is not new either, and thanks to Moneyball many people have at least heard about analytics being applied to baseball. Though he is most often associated with politics these days, New York Times writer Nate Silver actually got his start with baseball. “I have been a fan of baseball – and baseball statistics – for as long as I can remember,” he wrote in his book The Signal and the Noise. He started creating statistics for the game when he was just twelve, and while working at KPMG he created PECOTA, a forecasting system for baseball player performance. There are good reasons that baseball has been at the forefront of analytics, as Silver explains:

“Baseball offers perhaps the world’s richest data set: pretty much everything that has happened on a major-league playing field in the past 140 years has been dutifully and accurately recorded, and hundreds of players play in the big leads every year.”

While baseball is a team sport, it is unlike hockey or basketball or most other team sports in that it proceeds in a linear fashion. You could argue that a batter or pitcher in baseball is more responsible for his or her own performance than a forward is in hockey. It’s therefore a little easier to test empirically a hypothesis in baseball than it is in hockey.

Still, that hasn’t deterred NHL teams from delving into the world of analytics (though there have certainly been ups and downs over the years). David Staples, a guest of the Oilers Analytics Working Group (AWG), wrote about its creation back in March:

Some pro hockey bosses have little time for “Moneypuck,” the notion that NHL teams can use advanced statistics to gain an advantage. Others are more open to this cutting edge work. But there’s no doubt that interest in the field is exploding.

The Oilers formed the AWG a little over a year ago as a result of an advisory group on analytics coordinated by the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension. Members of the AWG include Kevin Lowe, Nick Wilson, and a number of other members of the Oilers operations team, Cult of Hockey blogger Bruce McCurdy, University of Alberta professors Corey Wentzell and Bruce Matichuk, AICML’s Randy Goebel, and Daniel Haight of Darkhorse Analytics. The group meets monthly, though someone is looking at the data almost every day. The Oilers have purchased reports and other sources of data in the past, but with the AWG, they’re considering data and analytics more aggressively. They see hackathons as a key way to extract value from all of the data.

The Hackathon 2.0 offers anyone who is interested the chance to delve into more than 1 GB of CSV data going all the way back to 1918. That’s 1 GB of pure text, roughly equivalent to 1000 thick books, and much more than was available during the first hackathon. For a data geek like myself, it’s pretty exciting. Hardcore hockey fans also seem to like the idea. “This is entirely fascinating. I cannot believe it’s really happening,” wrote Justin Bourne on theScore’s blog. Some have even started analyzing the data. Not everyone is as optimistic, however. Well-known Oilers blogger Tyler Dellow wrote, “while I applaud the effort, I’m not really sure that I think they’re going to get a whole lot that’s useful out of it.”

My sense after talking to Kevin Lowe and Nick Wilson about the hackathon is that they are realistic about the potential for data analytics. “It’s about knowing where to spend your time and resources,” Kevin said. “The findings are not earth shattering, but it’s a little bit of knowledge that you can hand over to the coach that at the right moment he can use, or so that he has more confidence in his decisions.” Nick agreed. “It’s a two or three percent contribution, like everything else.”

That said, there is some optimism that a fan will come up with something the Oilers just haven’t thought of, with some nugget of gold. “What’s unique about math applied to sports is the undiscovered, the lingering moneyball,” Nick said. “There’s incredible fans, incredible intelligence in this city,” Kevin agreed.

A total of 400 entrants had registered for the hackathon as of this morning. If you want to participate, you’d better move quickly – the deadline to register is tomorrow. After filling out the form, you’ll receive an email with a link to download the data. From there you’ll have until February 15 to submit your methodology for answering four challenges set forth by the Oilers AWG. You can see the full contest details here.

If you don’t get the opportunity to participate this time, don’t worry, the Oilers are keen to do additional hackathons in the future. “It’s not a one-off, and we definitely want to do more,” Nick told me. That’s probably a good strategy, given that new data is available all the time. As technology improves, you can imagine all sorts of new statistics being tracked. For example, cameras could help to track the number of strides a player takes per shift, or the number of times he pivots on the ice.

I’m planning to participate in the hackathon, though for me it’ll be more for fun than anything. I have already enlisted the help of my Dad who is a much bigger hockey fan than I am, based on some advice from Nate Silver: “Statistical inferences are much stronger when backed up by theory or at least some deeper thinking about their root causes.” In other words, it helps to know a thing or two about hockey!