Missile tracking cameras: The NBA's Moneyball data mine

Tiny little cameras, first used by the military, are following every move of every player on the court. But what if this principle were used in other professions too?

An example of STATS' SportVU data. STATS Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It's clear that we are moving into a faintly disturbing period of human history. Thanks to technology, everyone is following us around. Thanks to Facebook, we're following everyone else around.

However, when it comes to the NBA, which tonight might enjoy the last game of its season, surveillance has reached a fascinating extreme.

For, thanks to cameras first developed to track missiles, each NBA player can now have his moves recorded 25 times per second. The system, from a company called STATS, is known as SportVU, which does not, I believe, stand for Sport Voyeurs United.

But perhaps it should. Fast Company reports how these cameras continuously collect data, giving coaches and general managers an extraordinarily detailed picture of their employees' behavior.

Apparently, they can tell you how proficient Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant is after one dribble, as opposed to after two. They can tell you how good LeBron James is from 3 feet away, as opposed to 5. They can even tell you how many times Kobe Bryant scowls at Pau Gasol per minute.

I know that those for whom data is oatmeal will be overjoyed by this development. They will say that drafting the right players, or trading for them, will be made so much easier, once one knows how often per game a player blows his nose.

The analogy with Moneyball, the Oakland A's famed analytical method, is tempting. But in that case, Oakland GM Brad Pitt -- and cuddly, nerdy friend Jonah Hill -- were merely using data that everyone had.

These cameras, perched all over 10 NBA arenas now (including that of the Oklahoma City Thunder), reveal entirely new information, such as just how many times per minute Oklahoma City's Derek Fisher commits a foul and gets away with it.

It is this new information that can create radically changed attitudes among team managements. (By the way, the Oakland A's of the Moneyball era didn't win the World Series.)

Somehow, though, I feel the rejoicing at this technology has its limits. What if employers everywhere decided it was perfect for their purposes?

They could place cameras all over their offices to discover how often employees go to the toilet, slip out onto the fire escape for a doobie and chat with the new personal assistant with the Harvard degree and differently colored eyes.

Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg wandered up to some random Facebook coder and whispered: "Your keystrokes are down 13 percent this month. And you're going to the john 1.5 times too often. Get a grip."

As in all the most robust human relationships, sometimes there is such a thing as too much information.

NBA Screenshot: Chris Matyszczyk/CNET
 

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