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Do industry-held data hold the key to gambling policymaking?

Posted on 10 December 2013 .
Tags: FOBT, gambling, gambling machine

Heather WardleMore and more, gambling is being seen as a public health issue and in the wake of major changes to the way it’s regulated, there is an increasing demand for evidence on gambling behaviour and its impact on society. The Responsible Gambling Trust asked us to look into what kinds of data gaming machines hold about people’s gambling behaviour. 

The machines we looked into were Category B machines - the highest stakes machines currently available in the UK. Category B includes a whole range of games, but perhaps the most discussed is those in bookmakers, which have games like roulette and a maximum stake of £100. By exploring what information these machines collect, we’re one small step closer to understanding gamblers’ behaviour and helping answer the myriad questions policymakers are waiting on.

The benefit of understanding more about gambling’s impact on society and the individual are unbound. Knowing who is putting coins in slots and under what circumstances could help us recognise harmful patterns of play and what demographics falls into an at-risk category.  Asking people directly doesn’t often lead to accurate information; gamblers don’t always keep track of their spending, tending to overestimate winnings and underestimating loss. So data collected by the machines is an excellent addition to more traditional survey data.

We found that what the machines are currently providing is ‘data rich’ but ‘information light’. The main type of data collected at the moment is transactional data; the money paid in and out of a machine. The trouble with only collecting transactional data is that it’s not linked to a game’s features, for example near wins or losses, or bonuses and it’s generally not linked to an individual player. Although licensed betting offices record every single transaction, in some establishments like bingo clubs and arcades this transactional data is only recorded once a day or week, so it’s difficult to infer any real narrative of gamblers’ personal experience or spending from this.

There’s also some data available (proxy session data) which estimate sessions of play rather than single transactions, but currently the way this is estimated varies from one operator to another so its accuracy is still largely unknown (there are some positive movements to standardise this but they have not yet been implemented). Loyalty card schemes do offer information related to individuals: how much someone stakes, wins and loses, and how often and for how long someone plays. But so far few players have signed up to these schemes, and there’s no guarantee that the player uses the card consistently and solely in one establishment. Even within what is available, there are inconsistencies in the way that operators log and collect data.

Crucially, because we know nothing about gamblers themselves, we have no idea whether players are problem gamblers or are experiencing gambling-related harm. So does industry-held data have the potential to give a much needed more detailed picture? For the time being, it’s not the information panacea that the government’s been waiting for, but player tracking data and the possibility of merging administrative data with transactional data alongside surveys and qualitative research certainly looks promising.

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