5v5 shots, Senators +3% at Jets. pic.twitter.com/xemFFKZ6e1
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) September 30, 2015
A couple days ago, Micah Blake McCurdy made his first step towards The Great Unknown. It’s a decision hanging on a number of questions we always ask ourselves in the analytics community: What is my work worth to me? What is my work worth to others? For as much time as my spend on it, how can I make sure my work means something, and my time rewarded? How do I make sure my work stays exactly that: mine?
For the past decade, a number of powerful minds have navigated The Great Unknown, finding that apprehensive teams were only willing to commit peanuts and, on rare occasions, real salaried work after a partnership of a couple years. What made The Great Unknown even more of a mystery was the disappearance of sites, and data, and “stats” groups peddling other people’s work (usually in poor or incorrect fashion), and the discovery by some stats analysts that teams had been tracking data in ways that were curious, tedious, unhelpful. When the so-called Summer of Analytics occurred, The Great Unknown had the curtain pulled back a little bit: we started knowing who was getting hired where. But that peek exposed the still-immense uncertainty of the work available with some teams, and opened a new area of intrigue: analytics writing.
So why is what Micah is doing so important?
From the outset, I want to say that by monetizing some of his work, he is not doing something unique or revolutionary. There have been plenty of attempts to do this with sites in the past, particularly ones that provided written analysis. On the other hand, his is an explicit attempt to avoid what we all disliked about those other attempts: no advertising, no paywall. There’s a subtle scaling towards what would amount to consultant-level work, but the primary focus seems to be supporting someone who has shown over the past year that he can truly present hockey data in fresh, useful ways. And that, to me, is the first of three main reasons that I’ve decided to support Micah’s work.
#1: He is doing unique, useful, time-consuming work. And you all like it.
I had been commenting for the last few years in the hockey analytics community that data visualization was really the last big stone unturned. Gabe Desjardins (with a little help from me) had done work to that end over at Behind the Net, when he turned my idea for a “Fenwick Chart” for game recaps into charts for every game going back to 2007-08, at which point Gabe created season-long time sequence charts for individual players’ fancy stats. While the latter never really took off (which is too bad, I really liked them, still like them, and you can find the old ones here), the “possession charts” were everywhere, on Twitter, in articles and recaps, on television. Even today, you can hardly find a stats site that doesn’t have them. It was a simple idea, but the utility was massive, and it gave us an idea of what data visualization can achieve.
Subsequently, we’ve had further tastes of how much even average fans enjoy good data visualizations: Darryl Metcalf’s Extra Skater and Greg Sinclair’s Super Shot Search were excellent examples in 2013-14, and Dominic Galamini’s HERO charts became similarly popular in 2014-15 – alongside an immense number of stats sites with descendants of the aforementioned innovations. But the simplicity of the visualization is the greatest deception: developing and maintaining data visualizations and their host are immensely time-consuming. Gabe couldn’t fit all the data visualizations he and I started discussing onto BTN because the site kept crashing, and subsequent sites with visualization have had similar struggles. And then Micah came along.
Not only has McCurdy contributed excellent ideas (adjusted possession measures, shot generation and suppression game recaps – see lead image, “history strips“), but he has shown that he’s remarkably efficient at presenting and maintaining his treasure trove of visualizations in a clean, snappy way. Just go to HockeyViz.com and explore. Granted, the overall look needs a little lift, but as someone who has endured a few years of sluggish interactive visualizations, it’s a breath of fresh air. There’s a utility to that interface, and to what Micah shares on Twitter, and we are gobbling it up, sharing it around…we obviously like it. I have every confidence he will only make it better with my support.
#2: He is committed to engaging the public sphere as much as possible.
I don’t intend this to be a slight to any of my fellow writers, but Micah seems to be particularly earnest about keeping himself and his work accessible. This includes avoiding consultant work for NHL teams, which is certainly attainable for someone like him. While earlier generations of hockey analysts had pushed for salary work with NHL teams or melted into some other arena of gainful employment, and A.C. Thomas and Sam Ventura went to extra efforts to make sure War-On-Ice.com continued beyond them, McCurdy wants to “stay with us.” In doing so, he can set the stage for a new approach to sharing content while supporting the creator, one that doesn’t lean on the things that annoy us. To be sure, a number of qualified writers are being similarly selfless in their work (Jen Lute Costella, Corey Sznajder, Ryan Stimson, and Dominic Galamini come to mind), and while those four are going to do great things, the sheer logistical challenge of visualization work that McCurdy’s taking on makes it a full-time commitment.
#3: This is a rising tide that can lift all boats.
When I’ve had the opportunity to do freelance work the last few years, I couldn’t help but notice how expendable I was for whomever I wrote. There was a sort of wall between what I suppose were (to them) the “true” journalists versus the freelance analytics wonks. Editors, frightened at challenging their audiences, wanted me to strip down my work to discussions of singular magic numbers, that encompassed everything that a player did. It was remarkable; here the critique of us was that we reduced people to single numbers, yet when I wanted to add complexity to that view, it was getting removed. As soon as my discomfort was sensed, it was a cooked goose – editors wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly stand how debased my material had become. This happened at The Chicago Tribune, FiveThirtyEight, and The Hockey News, so not necessarily at places that normally eschewed hockey, or statistics.
That debasing, and my inability to address it outside of ending the relationship, was the result of my lack of leverage. If the alternative is not to get paid for my work, I have a heavy incentive to accept an editor’s debasement, even if – as was frequently the case – the editor did not have a grasp on hockey statistics.
McCurdy’s approach is an alternative, and an organic solution. Can we build something that we edit, we deliver, and can offer us support to continue the work we do? Can it keep us connected to the community that, to me, has been the most rewarding part of the work? Can it help us establish a price, and principles, when freelance opportunities arise? It sure can. I am supporting Micah because I see, in his approach, a base from which we might be able to build better notions of our value, best practices for getting gainful employment from our work, and real leverage.
And I hope you’ll join me. Here is the link at Patreon to support Micah’s site, HockeyViz.com, and his data visualization work.