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CIO interview: Craig Donald, CIO, The Football Association

Although self-confessed as ‘not the most passionate football fan’, the FA’s IT chief is helping to transform administration of the sport through technology

Football is a game of traditions. It’s about supporting a team through thick and thin and about cherishing the high points when they happen, along with family, friends and fellow fans. What football isn’t about, necessarily, is technology – but that’s one tradition that’s set to change.

Just as goal-line technology and video-assisted referees have become part of the game on the pitch, so coaches and players are beginning to recognise the potential of emerging technology to change the administration and performance management of the sport off the pitch.

The growing recognition of the power of digital transformation is as true for the Football Association (FA) as it is for any other business, says its CIO, Craig Donald.

“The importance of technology to the FA is rising,” he says. “We spent a lot of time under-investing in technology and doing what we could with the funding we had. What we’re seeing now is that technology is becoming so integral to everything we do now or what we want to do in the future.”

Moving into position

Donald joined the FA in July 2018. Having previously worked in the airline industry in senior IT positions at Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet, he says the opportunity to lead IT for the custodian of English football, and the oldest football association in the world, was too good to turn down.

“I’m absolutely loving it,” he says. “It seemed like it was going to be an interesting challenge. I wasn’t familiar with the back-office working of football, so it was a new industry for me, something different, and the opportunity to lead a team was very exciting.”

Donald says two other factors appealed: that this is his first CIO position, and it was a role that allowed him to work in a senior team at an organisation that wasn’t focused solely on shareholder returns, although – unexpectedly, perhaps – he admits to not being a huge fan of the sport.

“The FA re-invests everything it makes back into football in England, and that was a really big deal for me,” he says. “I’m not the most passionate football fan in the world, but I am very passionate about health and fitness. I just thought it would be a great thing to be involved in at this point in my career.”

Pushing continual improvements

Donald says his key priorities at the FA are focused on simplification and engagement. In terms of technology, he says that focus translates into continual investment in the organisation’s digital products, such as matchday systems.

The FA is also investing in technology that helps manage the administration of the game, including the Whole Game System (WGS). This web-based online administration application is designed to help manage the day-to-day running of a league, including fixtures, results, tables, results and statistics.

“We’re about to embark on a project to rebuild and rewrite the WGS, to make it mobile-first and remove a lot of the layers of administration from that application,” he says. “We want to develop products that allow us to meet our two key aims of engagement and simplification.”

“The administration of football is often unnecessarily complicated. Technology can help to free up people’s time”

Craig Donald, The Football Association

Such is the potential impact of technology that Donald says digital systems and services are becoming one of the most important areas of investment for the FA. This spending could be centred on anything from finding the right commercial partners for the business to helping people behind the scenes work more productively.

“The administration of football is often unnecessarily complicated,” he says. “Technology can help to free up people’s time. We’re all time-precious these days – it’s not fair to ask a club secretary to spend half a day filling out forms or inputting data. If we can find better ways to do that, then that’s a key advantage for our organisation.”

Building a collaboration platform

One of the key projects for Donald since becoming CIO has involved implementing G Suite applications and using Google as a platform for collaboration across the FA. The organisation is keen to make as much use of the cloud as possible when it comes to supporting worker productivity. “G Suite was like the gateway into Google,” says Donald.

“Our England teams in our national football centre at St George’s Park were looking to get consistency across the organisation. In the past, our coaches were all operating – and accessing data – in slightly different ways. Much of it was paper-based and there was no real consistency in terms of putting the right data into the hands of the right people.”

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The FA started investigating ways it could use technology to overcome these challenges. Donald says the organisation originally started using G Suite because of the low barrier to entry, especially when it comes to user awareness. While technology might not be one of the knowledge sweet spots for England coaches, Donald says one of the big plus points of G Suite is that it is simple to use and consume as a service.

“That was how we started – and then we realised there was more potential in terms of the Google Cloud,” he says. “So, we took what we’d begun to build in G Suite and moved it onto the Google Cloud platform because that allowed us to do a lot more and to gather information from all the various partners and points across our network. We recognised we could use Google Cloud to ingest, manipulate and transform the data we hold.”

Tracking player performance

Donald says this increased awareness of the power of the cloud led he and his colleagues to start thinking about how they might use big data to track and trace player performance. The results of this process are coming to fruition now. Known as the Player Performance System (PPS), the FA is developing a cloud-based system to measure fitness, training and form of players at all levels in the 28 England national teams.

“The importance of technology to the FA is rising. Technology is becoming integral to everything we do now or what we want to do in the future”
Craig Donald, The Football Association

“It’s about combining data in different ways to give the FA insights into how its players are performing,” says Donald, with the proprietary tool also based on Google Cloud. “It’s been an interesting and challenging journey for us because it’s been one of the first things we’ve developed in this way.”

Donald says PPS gathers about 23 million data points from video highlights alone annually. These data points are combined with information from other sources, such as general observations about players, which Donald says totals about 300,000 statistics from 1,300 players across 30,000 fixtures each year.

“The more data we have about a team or an individual, the more insights we can unlock,” he says. “It’s all about gathering as much information as we can. It’s then about empowering the teams to throw this data together in ways that probably wouldn’t make sense to some of the more technical guys who are not best-placed to understand football.”

Democratising the data

Donald describes the current state of PPS as a “0.9 version”. The FA has released the system to all its technical teams, and some are using it regularly, while others are involved in ongoing development. Donald expects the FA to go live with PPS at some stage this summer, with the benefits expected to come from improving team and player performance.

“It’s about saying, ‘here are all the datasets we have – how do we manipulate that information and how can we start to unlock the insight?’,” says Donald. “It’s about democratising the access to that data, so that the people on the ground can use it in the most effective way possible.”

Over time, PPS will be further enhanced by Google Cloud smart analytics, data management technology and machine learning tools to bring a higher level of performance analysis. Donald recognises the system could also have an impact beyond St George’s Park in the longer term.

“It’s mostly internally focused, but if other data becomes available then we will look at it,” he says. “Those kinds of advancements can have a big impact at grassroots level, and we’re already looking at how we can get the right data into the Football Foundation to help them target their investments in the right places going forward.”

Getting ready for future developments

Other key priorities for Donald include digital products, such as matchday systems. One of these initiatives is Platform for Football, which involves replacing core administration systems with a new grassroots technology application in England.

“One of the joys of this job is that I cover everything,” says Donald. “I’ve also got a stadium to run, so we’re looking at all the screens we have in the stadium and how we can get the right content to those screens so we add value during games.”

Another priority is the preparations for next year’s European Championship. Many of the games during this tournament will be held in England. “That will involve a lot of work around engagement,” he says. “We’re speaking with our colleagues in UEFA about those preparations.”

Looking further out still, Donald says safeguarding will remain one of his and his colleagues’ key concerns. “We’re making sure the principles are well established in our IT systems and we need to continue to enhance those,” he says, before suggesting that the next 12 to 24 months will include a significant programme of work.

“The list goes on and on and on. There’s a lot of investment that we want to make. We’re going through a vetting process to make sure that we’re focusing on the right things. For us at the moment, the right things are going to be digital products, the Platform for Football, safeguarding and making sure we’re ready for the European Championship.”

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