Saturday, February 25, 2012

A couple of quick notes on Jr Iditarod tracking

  1. IonEarth has switched to Google as their map source this year.  This may or may not be a win -- Bing has better place name (rivers, hills, etc.) labeling in remote areas.  I tend to like to have a topo map included as one of the layers and actually spend more time with that showing than with other formats, when it's available
  2. The individual locations all show '0 seconds' since the last update.  We know that can't be true all the time, right?  Understanding where someone really is is usually a function of knowing where they were at a given point in time and knowing how long ago it was.  For example, if a tracker point is about 10 minutes old it's possible that someone's traveled about a mile since then, more or less.  There's a young man who's way, way behind the rest of the pack according to the tracker and I can't tell if the issue is that his location hasn't updated or that that's really where his tracker is right now.
  3. Related: there's no history for individual mushers.  
  4. This made me laugh:

I don't know what really happened here but the best guess is that it looks like a landowner right-of-way issue.  We get those, even in Alaska.


  1. Melinda,

    I’d like to address a few of the issues you’ve raised.

    1. IonEarth recently made a wholesale switch to Google Maps after a long history using Microsoft’s Bing (Virtual Earth). There was a time when Microsoft had the best mapping product on the market, Google has since passed and probably lapped them. While Bing may have better labeling in some locations, Google has a far superior topographic view including labeled contour lines at high zoom levels as well as an exclusive source of high resolution (.5 Meter) satellite imagery…the highest resolution allowed by the DOD for commercial use. This link has more on the subject: Bing has no equivalent capacity to generate its own satellite imagery.

    From a developer standpoint, Google Maps makes it much easier to produce customized applications such as ours. It’s a higher performance interface with a larger feature set than is available with Bing. Google Maps also has a positive adoption and use trajectory with respect to 3rd party developers, whereas Bing is going backwards in some respects. Bing once had a very nice 3D mapping element (Similar to Google Earth) built into their interface which they have since abandoned due to lack of interest. Other aspects of Bings interface continue to lag as well.

    2. With respect to the position age issue, you may have a point, but only partially so. The “0” second display in the pop-up for a particular musher simply means that particular unit did not miss the most recently scheduled transmission. Since the trackers used in the Jr. Iditarod are operating on a 10 minute transmit interval, the age will be displayed in 10 minute increments. If that particular unit had missed its last transmission, the age would have been 10 minutes, 20 minutes if it had missed two and so on. Another way to establish the age of the transmission is to compare the Recorded time in the Pop-Up window of an individual musher with the most recent transmit interval listed in the Race Time Controls dialog shown in the left side bar of our tracking page. This area could use some work for clarities sake, but the information is all there once you know where to find it and what it means. Just for reference, all the musher’s positions are recorded at exactly the same time so that a direct position comparison can be made without the need to extrapolate position with respect to time. It’s difficult to make sense of a race when every racer is recording their position at a different time.

    3. On the topic of individual musher history, it is in fact there. There is a column with big, bright colorful check boxes labeled History, that when selected, displays the 10 most recent positions of the musher chosen. There is also history available for the entire race. This can be accessed by either clicking the arrows in the Race Time Controls, or directly selecting a specific time and date in the Race Time Controls via the down arrow next to the current date and time. Be aware that your date and time selection will revert to the current date and time once the Update Timer reaches zero. This can be disabled by tuning the Updates Off.

    4. Lastly, the contortion in the route of the Jr. Iditarod trail was in fact a land use issue.

  2. @Jerry (comment 1): It's great to be able to read a reply from IonEarth! But have you guys always been so formal about it? I nearly didn't dare to pipe up in response, frankly. Anyway, here it goes...

    It's completely understandable why you'd have chosen Google Maps. That's my choice, too - the API and libraries are just a lot better. This said, up here in Alaska, the actual mapping has its shortcomings - not only place labels, but also the georeferencing (alignment of maps with satellite images with raw GPS data) tends to have systematic errors. The GeoEye imagery are superb, of course, but usually not available in remote regions, such as much of the Iditarod trail (last I checked - this could have improved). As for integrating a real USGS topo map, that's made very easy with Google's mapping library, which provides KLM files. This would be a huge plus compared to the slick but pretty poor Google "Terrain" layer stack.

    The IonEarth hardware product and connectivity looks extremely strong to me, but I agree with Melinda that the user experience could do with some thought from the point of view of the mushing fan, or someone involved in the logistics of the race. For example, the Jr. Iditarod is barely over, and all the tracks appear to have vanished completely. Even when they were there, the last 10 points doesn't even tell me much on a high level about how the musher got on, and obviously has no way of giving me visual access to run/rest cycle, average speed between rests, and other simple aggregate variables. This sort of thing, in addition to clarity of the user interface itself, would be where I'd direct my attention to as a developer.

    It's of course a very interesting product -- I used your previous version last year, but was then still pretty new to looking at dogsled racing data. I'm curious how it goes this year.

  3. I think the geographic place name issue probably is not trivial. There are a lot of iconic places along the Iditarod Trail, places like the Dalzell Gorge, the Farewell Burn, Old Woman Mountain, Egypt Mountain, etc. Some of these aren't marked as such on any map but can be inferred from other place names as they appear on topo maps (river names, usually). But still, they don't appear on Google maps. You can *search* for them if you go to the Google page but that means leaving your own real estate (web page) and you don't get the same sense of where dog teams are in relation to a given geographic marker. I agree that the Google Map API issue is compelling but let's not pretend that you're not giving up something to make the switch. I'd love it if you could include a real topo layer, which would give you both the better API and the richer visual display.

    I've been thinking about whether or not providing an API to your tracking system would be a good thing. You've got fantastic hardware, and there's a group of nearly fanatical fans out there, some of whom are pretty creative and a surprising number of whom are technical. I tend to think that the window on that has closed, though, since people now have several years' experience with the Spot API (as well as the ability to pick up their own inexpensively and use it for development) and my guess is that Garmin will have one out within the year.

    I spent the day fishing yesterday and came home to find that Bailey Vitello had dropped to the back half of the Jr Iditarod pack, so I tried to use your stuff to understand what happened. It's probably that I just have a lot less experience with your software and that with more practice it will get easier, but I wasn't able to get a good picture of how he fell back. You really don't provide any easy-to-eyeball summary data display. I could step back and forth between tracker points but it just didn't give me as clear a sense whether he got bogged down and stopped or he just lost speed, or what.