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Sooraj Shah

Contributing Editor

Sooraj Shah is Contributing Editor of New Statesman Tech with a focus on C-level IT leader interviews. He is also a freelance technology journalist.

“We’re driving decisions based on data rather than experience alone,” says Arsenal FC IT Director Christelle Heikkila

Data analytics isn’t restricted to those in traditional business set-ups; Arsenal Football Club, for example, is increasingly relying on data to help improve its performance both on and off the pitch.

The club’s IT director, Christelle Heikkila, explains that football analytics has become an important aspect of the club’s work.

“Historically, a lot of decisions were based on experience and judgement, whereas nowadays it is much more about driving decisions that are scientific,” she tells NS Tech.

Part of this includes recording all of the first team and academy’s trainings sessions and studying that data. This amounts to about 8TB of data every year, which is the equivalent of filming 875 football matches. This helps the management team to better understand how to set up the team, and areas of the pitch where improvements can be made.

The importance of this data however does come with a caveat; it needs to be protected at all times. It’s for this reason that the company has selected cloud data back-up provider Acronis as its partner. The company’s role is to ensure that all of Arsenal’s data, applications and systems, including the team’s Microsoft OneDrive and Office 365 accounts are kept secure. The videos of training sessions will also be securely stored.

“The important thing about the data is not only to make sure it’s secure but to ensure that we’re able to recover that data easily at any time, and as IT director I also want to ensure that any technology in the club is easy to use and efficient,” Heikkila explains.

“The great thing about the Acronis product is it’s simple and the data is secure, I don’t have to compromise on user experience. They have a lot of new technologies to secure the data, using things like anti-ransomware defence and artificial intelligence to monitor systems in real-time,” she adds.

Putting forward a new strategy

While Heikkila’s role has some similarities to other CIO roles, a football club is a complex organisation to work for. Arsenal FC isn’t just a sports club; it is technically an events company as it hosts football matches, and it is also a retailer and a charity. This is part of the reason Heikkila was attracted to a senior IT role within a football environment. 

One example she gives of how different the environment is to a corporate company is the way the service desk operates.

“We have a service desk but on a match day that service desk becomes mobile because the stadium is so huge. So if someone has an IT issue selling tickets they can’t get up to our service desk as they’ve got fans queuing to get tickets, so our service desk will travel down to them – that’s something I’ve not seen before. We are the face of IT and we’ll go to our users who need help – particularly on match day,” she says.

Heikkila joined the organisation in July, and she is already working on a strategy for her team that aligns with the football club’s own vision. To do this, she wants to sit down with other departments at the club to see what their IT needs are; she says that there is already a bit of a backlog of things needed to be investigated where technology input is required.

While it is still early days in her role, she says that emerging technologies are something that Arsenal is looking to see how it can use.

“The culture of the club is to think forward and in October last year we launched an initiative called The Innovation Lab, whereby we invited startups to pitch their tech ideas for the club,” Heikkila explains.

Arsenal had 250 applicants, which it narrowed down to 22 in November 2017. The remaining startups did presentations at the Emirates and in January it chose six of those companies to start a 10 week process to build a proof-of-concept (POC). Finally, there was a demo day in March where those six startups would test how their products actually work for Arsenal. Of those six startups, the football club is bringing in one company whose technology helps Arsenal to understand why people visit Arsenal.com. 

The club is also working on using technology to better manage the huge demand its contact centre staff have to deal with.

“On a typical day we expect 8,000 phone calls and 12,000 emails… and you can imagine there are times when we are overwhelmed by demand, particularly when tickets go on sale, so we could use technology to effectively schedule the contacts for agents at peak times and give our managers more information on what’s happening and of any trends,” says Heikkila.

With technology covering so many different sides of the business, Arsenal’s IT director has a lot to consider for her IT strategy going forward.