By: Edward Egros

sxsw

A Review of SXSW

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For one weekend in Austin, while others attended festivals, concerts and technology symposiums, I wanted to explore the sports and media panel discussions at SXSW, a conference billing itself that celebrates the convergence of the interactive, film and music industries. First, to be a panelist at SXSW, you must master the art of the humble brag. For instance, to paraphrase a filmmaker's list of his two main goals for any of his products, he said that he must love his work and his audience must love his work.

Pause to be inspired.

A couple of panel hosts reiterated their resumes aloud without using this background for an educated question.

Pause to emote.

One of the better tidbits of advice I ever received as a writer is to know your audience. While SXSW attracts a diverse group of scholars, professionals and fun-lovers, often times this gallery wants to learn how to become the person they are watching, or at least morph into a unique iteration. If keeping trade secrets serves as the highest priority, at least teach us something that will help an aspiring audience. A disappointing talk featured a panel promoting "
The Weekly", a television endeavor from the New York Times committed to long-form storytelling. Instead of previewing at least one specific story without a fancy montage, the conversation felt more like an academic presentation, philosophizing about why this format "will" work. I did want to learn more about the program, but the panel felt so much like an infomercial, Ron Popeil should have moderated. I wished for something with takeaways for my own work as a journalist, not a payment installment plan.

Often times panels with star power offered fewer lessons about the ways of the world than those who let their experience speak for themselves. One exception was NBA champion Chris Bosh, an advocate of analytics and
an elite karaoke singer. It took losing to the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and signing Shane Battier to make Bosh a believer in the numbers, so much so that he rightfully credits the adjusted approach with his 2012 NBA Championship. Alongside Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, the panel devoted to the future of basketball discussed the importance of the three-point shot, and how big men are taught to handle the ball like a guard and be unafraid to launch from deep.

Perhaps my favorite panel featured a discussion on how data has changed the NFL. In particular,
Sarah Bailey (analyst with the Los Angeles Rams) and Namita Nandakumar (analyst with the Philadelphia Eagles and noted pugilist) discussed how they make the most of a small analytics staff and why any quantitative strides should be celebrated, not interpreted as a "glass half-empty" endeavor. For instance, while quants wish coaches would go for it on 4th down more often, Nandakumar advises to at least take satisfaction coaches are getting smarter about it. A sobering reality to consider is how few jobs are available to data scientists in pro football, so self-promotion and engaging research projects in other sports are vital in this competitive industry. For nuanced advice for data scientists, Bailey offers this advice: when working with large datasets, take a subset, crunch the numbers in the R programming language, and if you are satisfied with the results, take a larger dataset and use the Python programming language.

The last lecture I attended featured Paul Bracewell, Managing Director of DOT Loves Data, discussing how to use machine learning to rate athletes in a variety of sports, most notably international events like rugby and cricket. Some of the better instruction he offered involved how to discuss analytics with coaches and players: "When predictivity is used as a benchmark, the model needs to generate supporting output to explain any departure from the predicted results". In other words, explain why a model works or doesn't work in a specific situation. Transparency and meaning to build trust are of the utmost concern.

I wrapped up my time recording an episode of "
Outside the Box" with our usual EPlay crew. It featured a spirited conversation as to who is responsible for preventing young players from a catch-and-shoot approach to basketball that some believe analytic enthusiasts have espoused. Trust me, you want to listen to this one. Until then, my biggest takeaway from my first SXSW is the opportunities to learn and share ideas exist, but they often remain hidden. Until I revisit it all, I will take a break and watch a video of me petting a robot puppy at one of the innovation exhibits.