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CIO interview: Steve Otto, chief technology officer, The R&A

When the coronavirus pandemic caused The Open to be cancelled, The R&A’s tech team took the UK’s flagship golf tournament online

When your business involves governing how people around the globe participate in a world-famous golf championship like The Open, the coronavirus pandemic presents a significant challenge.

Steve Otto, chief technology officer (CTO) at The R&A, which is golf's governing body as well as the organiser of The Open, knew he and his senior colleagues had to find a way to try to keep golf fans entertained during lockdown when this year’s tournament was cancelled.

The answer was to use a combination of data and video to create a virtual replacement for The Open that included golfing greats from the past 50 years.

It was known as The Open for the Ages, and viewers at home got to see “in-play” clips, leaderboards and statistics over the first three days of the tournament. The final round was broadcast live on Sunday 19 July, when the 149th staging of The Open had been due to take place.

The virtual tournament, which was eventually won by all-time great Jack Nicklaus, was a critical success. More than a million people watched the final round, broadcast live on Sunday morning UK time. The data-led event is also an example of the way Otto and his peers at The R&A want to exploit digital information in the future.

“I want to make sure that we’ve learned a lot from this lockdown process,” he says. “I think we’ve moved very quickly. We have quite good technology at The R&A, but it’s about making sure staff know how to utilise it. That might seem a simple aim, but I think that would make the organisation and the way we use data and technology a lot better.”

Otto took a circuitous route to IT leadership. After completing a PhD in aerodynamics, he worked at NASA Langley in the US, before returning to the UK to become a senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham. In 1998, he was approached by The R&A to become part of a research team looking at the evolution of modern drivers (a type of golf club, for the uninitiated). Through that project, he became closely associated with The R&A and began working full-time for the organisation in 2004.

“We don’t need to be experts, but we need to know experts”
Steve Otto, The R&A

“Since coming to The R&A, I get to look at the whole picture, whereas at NASA you really just focus on a small element of something,” he says. “It’s really quite mind-boggling the difference in both data and processing power between my work at NASA 20 years ago and now, but I learned a lot in terms of algorithm development and problem-solving, which is brought to bear on what I do today.”

Otto moved into the CTO role at The R&A four years ago. When he started working for the organisation back in 2004, he was mainly focused on equipment rules, which remains one of the areas where The R&A still holds the greatest depth of data. That process, which continues today, involves an analysis of how golf equipment has changed and how it is used.

This analysis can also cross organisational boundaries. Otto has worked with colleagues at both the PGA Tour and the European Tour, understanding how their data-rich sources can create insight on how the sport is played. This process helped his team to create the World Amateur Golf Ranking (WAGR), in which The R&A ranks the 10,000 leading amateur golfers around the globe. “Once again, that’s all about algorithms and problem-solving,” he says.

Building strong partnerships

In his time with The R&A, Otto’s role evolved and he began focusing on the back-end technology systems behind the sport. This led to him running the IT function, the organisation’s websites and its software development processes. As CTO, he now has a broad range of responsibilities.

“I’m still looking at how the organisation uses technology, the equipment rules and the WAGR,” says Otto. “But I’m also now looking to change our operating model and to help evolve the business going forward to really give us better exposure to technology and the way we use systems and services as an organisation.”

The evolution of Otto’s IT leadership role at The R&A mirrors the evolution of technology in golf. As the sport has become reliant on technology, so the importance of having an expert to help make the most of data and IT has risen. Otto recognises this connection.

“I’m the first incumbent of this position,” he says. “It’s really the first time the organisation has invested in someone to just look at the areas that I’m looking at, which involves working closely with some of our technology partners.”

He is referring to The R&A’s close working relationship with key technology suppliers such as NTT Data, which it recently engaged to help build its data model for The Open for the Ages.

The model drew on a wide range of sources from historical information, video footage, weather information and a social media-sponsored fan vote. Otto says the work with NTT Data is an example of what can be achieved through effective partnerships.

“We don’t need to be experts, but we need to know experts,” he says. “So my role is really about communications and making sure that channels stay open. We’re not a technology firm. We need to know what’s out there in terms of the threats and opportunities, and that’s the kind of interaction we get from working with our technology partners.”

Putting governance in place

Otto’s role is not just about working closely with external partners; it is about communicating the benefits of IT in the round, whether that’s with employees or other people connected to the organisation.

“It’s about making sure our staff and our stakeholders have access to technology, that they know what technology is out there and that they know how to exploit it,” he says. “A lot of that work is about data governance. We have immensely rich data, but it’s about making sure that information is going to be usable and viable into the future.”

That means a large proportion of Otto’s role is often about re-emphasising the importance of good practice, he says, and that practice involves making sure The R&A’s data-use processes are well documented.

“That might sound a bit dull and mundane, but I get a thrill from knowing that actually, in a few years, we’ll be able to look back on what we were doing at this time and know that the data is there for us to utilise, whether it’s in a commercial setting or in a pure data setting,” he says.

Setting the right standards

Otto says one of his biggest achievements is helping to create Allan Robertson House, The R&A’s equipment test centre at Kingsbarns, near St Andrews. The state-of-the-art testing centre was finished in 2017 and provides a world-leading research facility that houses The R&A’s equipment standards department.

“That centre ensures that we are resilient and can be agile going forward – and that’s the kind of model I want to see us move to in technology,” he says. “So we have this testing centre that’s fit for purpose at the time, but we also wanted to ensure it’s going to be fit for purpose going forward.”

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The day-to-day function of the centre is to make sure that clubs and balls satisfy the rules as they exist in the sport right now. Another key function, says Otto, is making sure the rules are pertinent to the way the game is played – and that’s where big data plays a crucial role.

“We’re looking at the integrity of the sport and conducting fundamental research into the physics of golf,” he says. “In an area like biomechanics, we have a human-testing bay equipped with 22 cameras that are able to track golfers. So rather than just letting data come into us, we do our own research and generate data as well.

“That research gives us a good understanding of what we’ve got and allows us to take on challenges around the use of technology. We’re on the start of that journey, so there are some aspects of technology that we’re going to get better at communicating to people in the sport. We still have a way to go.”

Delivering big business benefits

Otto says The R&A is already a big user of cloud technology, including both Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services platforms. The organisation has also invested in business intelligence and the technology will play a big part in what The R&A wants to do during the next 12 months. Underlying data-governance processes will be crucial to the success of this work, he says.

“Making sure that our decision-making is based on good data behind the scenes and making sure that data is accessible is key,” he says. “We’ve moved a lot of our application programming interfaces and our data-access points into the cloud, but perhaps we need to move more data off machines and into centralised cloud storage.”

Otto says The R&A works with a range of suppliers and aims to see how each of these providers can deliver their solutions to the organisation’s business challenges. During the next two years, he wants to deliver more tech-enabled benefits to golf’s stakeholders.

The R&A governs the game globally outside the US and Mexico, working closely with the affiliate unions that manage the game in individual nations. Otto says the organisation is keen to explore how it can use technology to create enhanced engagement and will continue to look for scalable services that work for The R&A and national associations.

“In terms of the future, we’d like to help our affiliates engage better with the golfers in their countries,” he says. “Helping affiliates, like the Japan Golf Association, to engage with its golfers – and building technology solutions that are scalable – would give us broad oversight on the health of the game.”

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