The Oracle Team USA, owned by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, was down 8 races to 1 to Emirates Team New Zealand in the 2013 America’s Cup regatta, a first-to-nine competition. Ellison, one of the sport’s biggest advocates and aficionados, did not skip out on his own keynote address at Oracle’s OpenWorld Conference earlier in the week just to watch his team lose. Changes had to be made.
First, when the team was down 4-1, they boldly brought in a new tactician, British four-time Olympic gold medalist Sir Ben Ainslie. Making such a dramatic shift in the middle of the competition stunned pundits and observers, but the move paid huge dividends as Ainslie was able to inspire his crew and sailors while making the subtle tweaks necessary. Second, the Oracle team, in a move befitting its sponsor and biggest supporter, turned to an old friend:
This is no longer your great-grandfather’s yachting competition. Think sailing is all about sails and the wind and simple navigation with a rudder? Think again. The 72-foot-long catamarans more closely resembled sleek and futuristic flying machines or hovercrafts than they did sailboats. Amid all this external flashiness, these yachts had a great deal going on under the hood, in the form of various hi-tech instruments designed to give the sailors and their crew more information to work with. It is, in fact, these under-the-hood technological advancements – coupled with careful analysis and using the actionable insights from the data to make tweaks – that ultimately spurred Oracle Team USA’s miraculous turnaround in the final stages of the race to defeat Team New Zealand.
Check out some of the team’s raw data stats and specifications, supplied by Asim Khan, the Director of Information Systems aboard Oracle Team USA:
– 300 sensors located throughout the boat collecting performance data, transmitting that information to a server located in the hull
– 3,000 variables analyzing 10 times a second
– 150 key data points sent real-time to a Oracle database on the performance chase boat
– 10, 20 or 30 variables fitted through a time-based algorithm for real-time analytics
– 200 gigabytes of video per day
– 1 gigabyte of raw data per boat per day
All of these bells and whistles combined to deliver constant reams of information to the Oracle Team sailors and crewmembers in the months of training leading up to the race and especially during the early stages of the race, as the team fell further behind. Each crewmember wore a PDA on their wrist to receive a real-time, customized feed of data and information. With more information coming in on weather patterns, wind changes, sail wing performance, what the sailors were doing and other nuances, the team could make incremental changes and tweaks throughout the race in order to improve their performance. Analyzing the data revealed powerful insights that could be put into action right away, reaping immediate benefits.
For proof of Oracle Team USA’s data-sourced tweaks, consider this: the team submitted a new measurement certificate for every race, as the crew looked to make tweaks that would improve the way the yacht sailed. Every time a change was made to any boat’s configuration, a new measurement certificate was required. The team never stopped tinkering, and their efforts paid off.
“The major changes in my view were the balance of the boat, where obviously the load sharing between the foils is critical, so we adjusted that quite a lot,” Russell Coutts, Oracle’s chief executive and the most successful skipper in the modern history of the Cup, told the New York Times. “We changed that loading by manipulating the wing shapes and flaps. And then there were a bunch of little changes that just reduced the drag a few kilos here and a few kilograms there, and all of the sudden you have an edge.”
Much credit for Oracle’s dramatic turnaround was also due to the fact that they were the significantly faster boat upwind. In addition to the tweaks made to the balance of the boat, experts have suggested that the crew also used their data analysis to make modifications – taking into account shifting wind and weather patterns – to the wing sail that served as the team’s primary power source.
But as big a role as data and analytics played in helping key the Oracle Team’s, let’s not forget the human element; someone has to interpret all that data and make sense of it, before presenting real actionable insights to the crew and the sailors aboard. This human element was a point Coutts was quick to remind everybody about.
“For sure there was a use of the technology change where we manipulated the force or manipulated the balance of those forces, but the guys on board the boat changed their technique,” said Coutts. “So there’s this fantastic human element to this which really won the day in the end, which is great.”
And therein lies the lesson to be learned from Oracle Team USA’s and Larry Ellison’s miraculous turnaround. Data is extremely powerful. When measuring and tracking the right things – such as how the wind patterns were shifting, or how the boat was balanced – there can be a wealth of information gleaned. But that data and information alone is insufficient for real change. There has to be the right people in place who know what to look for in that data and how best to break it down into digestible formats. Then, they have to find the actionable insights revealed by the data. Finally, with great power in information comes a great responsibility to apply that information correctly, in the appropriate places. All the historical data and the most accurate forecasts in the world are for naught if they are not applied properly to implement correct change.
The Oracle Team USA was able to find out what they needed from the data. They were able to put that information to use immediately, in the form of tweaks to how they operated the yacht. They were able to see immediate benefits in their tweaks, further emboldening them to trust the data. Finally, they were able to miraculously engineer a turnaround that saw them come from behind to win the 34th America’s Cup. Larry Ellison celebrated with his crew, proudly hoisting the 162-year-old trophy – the oldest trophy in international sports – triumphantly in the air.
Seems like it was a smart move for him to skip the Oracle OpenWorld Conference.