Thursday, February 21, 2013

New tracker analytics for Iditarod

I guess it's time to start ramping up for Iditarod coverage.  Recent interactions suggest that we won't see much improved video, but IonEarth (the GPS tracker service used by the Iditarod) seems to be feeling the heat from the guys at Trackleaders, who are committed to trying to find ways to reveal the stories in the tracker data.  For the most part IonEarth has been content to show you where everybody is, but that's no longer enough.

IonEarth is tracking the Iron Dog, a snow machine race from Big Lake to Nome to Fairbanks. (Incidentally, the Iron Dog runs over part of the Iditarod race trail and it may be worth taking a look at how that's going to get a sense of trail conditions).  Thanks to the sponsorship of the Alaska National Guard (which also sets up and staffs the Yukon Quest Two Rivers checkpoint - a huge w00t! to them), the Iron Dog trackers are free, so here's your chance to take it out for a test drive and see if you want to subscribe to the Iditarod's.

The Iron Dog tracker is here.  If you subscribed to the Iditarod tracker last year this should look very familiar, at least at first:

You'll note the addition of some new tabs across the top of the map:

  • Web view (that is to say, this view)
  • Analytics view
  • Leader view
  • Mobile view
  • Help
I've said before that IonEarth's stuff is a good example of why we don't let hardware people write software, and I'll say it again.  To get to the mobile view you need to load this map, which is a little slow to load on my machine with a quad-core processor, 12GB of memory, and a 3Mb down network connection.  To get to the mobile tracker you need to go to this page (as nerds say: FAIL).  On my phone, it took three minutes, and once it's loaded you get this:


Note that this picture was taken from a distance of several inches.  My middle-aged eyes looked at the screen and my middle-aged brain said "No.  Absolutely not."  I sincerely hope that Iditarod has the good judgment to compensate for IonEarth's mistake by providing a link directly from the Iditarod site to the IonEarth mobile tracker site (fortunately the IonEarth interface is sufficiently RESTful that you can).

Okay, back to the new analytics page.  When you click the Analytics tab it will take you to a new page with a plot for one of the Iron Dog racers.You can add more teams - as many as two in total!  Very exciting.  But you can choose which teams to show (I continue to think that Trackleaders needs to allow us to add and remove mushers from the race flow plot).

The plot for each team looks like this:

The 'x' axis on the plot (the horizontal one) shows time and date (and note the little thumbs above the horizontal scrollbar that allow you to zoom in on particular times).  There are two values overlaid on the 'y' axis (the vertical one): altitude and speed.  The top line (the blue one) plots altitude against time.  (I'm unclear why last night was so short - I've got to assume that's a bug).

There are three speed values.  The green line shows "instantaneous" speed - the IonEarth tracker boxes contain an accelerometer in addition to the GPS and battery.  The purple line shows average speed and the lighter blue line shows moving average speed.  To be honest I don't know what they're trying to do with their averages (because they don't tell us - yay, IonEarth).  I have to assume that both are moving averages and that the purple one is taken over fewer terms, and possibly the blue line is actually a cumulative moving average (moving averages are a nice way of smoothing data to help get a better understanding of longer-term trends).  This may change with more experience playing around with their stuff, but at this point I do not find the moving averages particularly useful and I find the "moving average" curve to be particularly not useful.  But, as I said, this may change.

Here's where I think the speed/time plot will be very interesting: one of the things we try to understand during a dogsled race is run/rest schedules, as they can be one of the keys to performance.  Over the years teams have transitioned from a fairly strict 4-on/4-off schedule to longer run/longer rest or longer run/same rest (say, 6-on/4-off).  This will provide a nice graphic illustration of what teams are doing, just as Trackleaders speed/time plots on individual team pages does.  But:  IonEarth is still not showing the dynamics of the race, and how teams are moving against each other.  They're telling more of a story than they used to, to be sure, but they're still not telling much of one, which is too bad.

In conversations with fans it's become clear that many people just want to know where teams are at a specific point in time.  But, a growing number of fans are increasingly sophisticated in their understanding of distance mushing events, and I think there's pretty clearly a market for tools which help reveal more of what's going on on the trail.  IonEarth has amazing hardware; I hope that one day they either get more software people (and analytical types) on-board, or that they open up their interfaces so that developers who understand this stuff a little better can start to produce improved, more interesting tools.

What about you: when you look at GPS trackers while you're following a race, what do you want to know?

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