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IoT, machine learning, MookieBot triple threat for Red Sox IT in 2019

Red Sox IT chief Brian Shield talks about the next leg of the franchise's digital transformation: using IoT and machine learning to serve fans and sharpen at-bats.

When Brian Shield was named vice president of IT for the Boston Red Sox in 2013, he joined a baseball organization that was strong in analytics. But the storied franchise was making do with outdated legacy systems that weren't up to the task of optimizing its baseball operations or serving its fans -- at least not on the digital front.

In part one of this Q&A, Shield described how he built the foundation for a digitally savvy organization, including deploying 600 wireless access points around the team's home stadium, Fenway Park. Putting Wi-Fi in stadiums might not sound like a huge technical challenge. But because the park in question is a historic landmark and a significant portion of the fan base wants the Green Monster, as it's called, to look like it did in 1912, Shield said the project was not exactly a walk in the park.

"Thanks to a lot of green paint, we have our wireless infrastructure in place for fans to have mobile devices for their digital tickets, in addition to the capabilities that we enable with Major League Baseball," he said.

Shield, who reckons the organization is about "halfway through" its digital transformation journey, talks here about how high-performance computing has boosted the team's analytics and about what's coming. Among the technologies that will carry Red Sox Nation into the future: IoT, machine learning and MookieBot.

Taking advantage of Boston's tech expertise, VCs

Besides Wi-Fi, what other infrastructure improvements were needed to get up to digital speed?

Brian Shield, vice president of IT, Boston Red SoxBrian Shield

Brian Shield: We were on-prem back in 2013; today, we're very much a hybrid type of environment. Major League Baseball leverages AWS, and so a lot of our data from MLB is a combined model of leveraging cloud-based content from various data sources. But most of our heavy processing is still done on site.

We enjoy a great relationship with Dell EMC, so we have some superhigh-performing data storage devices, and some of our capabilities are leveraging our combination of cloud services plus flash storage and other high-performance [computing] capabilities. That allows us to do analytics much more quickly than we were ever able to do before.

One of the challenges you find when you processing a lot of baseball and business data is that your window of time to do all this is pretty tight. So, the higher performing we can do all those things enables us to get content to decision-makers as quickly as possible.

Where do you put your organization on the digital transformation journey?

Shield: We're somewhere in the middle on that journey. We're better than most people on digital transformation, but we have a long ways to go still. We do a good job of innovating. And we're not shy about taking a look at emerging technologies.

One of the benefits of being the Red Sox, and especially with having such a broad community as Red Sox Nation, people aren't shy about sharing information about the kinds of technologies they think will make a difference here. We work with a lot of individuals and a lot of organizations to look at which technologies will best serve our business, whether from a fan-facing or an employee-facing [perspective] or from a player perspective.

So, who are these people offering you tech advice?

Shield: It's a combination. There's academia -- Boston has some of the best colleges in the world -- and we also have some very progressive local companies here, with a lot of venture capital companies in town, too. This is a hotbed for tech companies providing services to traditional business. And if there's an emerging technology capable that could apply to a fan-facing service or in Fenway Park, we're a magnet [for companies looking for an] opportunity to enable changes in the digital ecosystem.

Quest for personalization

An edge strategy built on mobile devices:

"We're trying to move fans to a more digital experience and levering their mobile devices such as their phones as sort of the on-ramp for all those services. The Boston Red Sox digital experience is a shared experience with Major League Baseball. So, we leverage the Ballpark app, and the Red Sox supplements it with our own technology in certain cases to really create the most compelling experience we can.

"Ultimately our goal is to know as many unique fans coming to a baseball game over the next three to five years so we can create that personalized experience as best we can. We see the mobile device as the best mechanism for doing that. And we see the mobile device as the best mechanism for effectively reaching people."

Gamification, AR and chatbot apps to amuse and inform:

"In the past couple of years, we introduced gaming capabilities, and we launched a bingo application. On the surface, you might think, 'Why would you do that?' We use that app to give content that people find valuable. Everyone gets a unique board, and it's comprised of squares that are derived from plays in the game. So, when a certain play occurs, your board will light up automatically. So, say there's a sacrifice fly; you can click on it, and it gives an explanation to what is a sacrifice fly. We're trying to make it educational, as well as informative.

"We've also introduced augmented reality capabilities. So, now, you can go around the ballpark and, using augmented reality, you can position your phone over a Hall-of-Fame plaque, and it will tell you that player's whole story. And we're using chatbots on our ballpark application that will allow fans to ask questions and either get automated or live answers from our fans service folks."

-- Brian Shield, vice president of IT, Boston Red Sox

IoT and machine learning are top of the lineup

Can you provide examples?

Shield: We're doing a lot of work in the IoT space. We're currently working with a couple of companies right now, testing sensors to better understand how fans pass through Fenway Park, seeing where there might be chokepoints and how we can improve staffing levels. Think of Fenway Park and how people move before and after the game and where people congregate. From a merchandising perspective, we need to know where people dwell.

We've been dabbling with IoT technology for three years, but I think 2019 will be the year we transition from proof of concept to some more significant full-scale operations and levels. So, now, for the first time, technologies within Fenway Park, such as Wi-Fi access points and cameras and turnstiles, can feed into an IoT platform and help us get a pretty accurate read on certain things, like how many people are in line at a certain concession stand and which restrooms might have very few people in them.

So, we can have the operational data that helps us run a better business and serve the fans better, but also give them the data on their mobile app, like showing the restroom closest to them that doesn't have a crowd or the concession stand with the shortest line.

What else is on the docket?

Shield: [In addition to] IoT, machine learning is a technology that will become very important for an organization like ours, both in terms of leveraging machine learning on the baseball side, so we can help our players better anticipate, say, what type of pitch is coming next and how to better defend a certain positon. And you're going to see us better leverage more data to allow players to perform at their peak level. On the business side, the more data sources that we can pull in, the better we can understand fan behavior, and that will inform the digital services that we'll be able to provide the fans.

And, internally, one of my big focus points is how we ensure we're making employees as productive as possible. [We're] giving them access to information, automating things that historically were manually intensive and running a better business on the inside through access to technology and access to data and through the effective use of software.

Can you provide specific examples of technologies you're using?

Shield: The Red Sox launched MookieBot, a chatbot named for star right fielder Mookie Betts. The MookieBot enables fans to ask an array of stadium questions via the MLB mobile app. It's powered by artificial intelligence startup Satisfi Labs.

[We] also launched a mobile-friendly intranet, called Home Plate, that enables the Boston Red Sox to communicate with its employees, including 1,000-plus seasonal workers that helm security and take tickets, as well as concession stand workers outsourced by Aramark and other temporary positions. It's powered by modern employee experience platform Akumina. And [we launched] the Red Sox Replay, a third-party ticketing system to protect fans from fraudulent tickets bought online. It is powered by MLB and Tickets.com.

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This was last published in April 2019

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