Saturday, February 25, 2012

Iditarod, and on thinking about how to think about thinking about location data

Iditarod is coming up in just a few weeks.  I think that they're the first race I saw use actual GPS trackers (as opposed to the Can-Am's map projections).  Their trackers show you where the teams are on a map, the speed at which they're traveling (and this may actually be calculated by their GPS, but I tend to think not - more on that in a subsequent post), the temperature (always entertaining to know in wintertime Alaska, but it appears from the trackers on the Junior Iditarod that they're no longer displaying that data), etc.  IonEarth is an outfit with some very smart engineers who've worked out how to build a gizmo that takes periodic GPS readings, uplinks data, and has a battery that can survive doing this in subzero temperatures for two weeks while not being overly large and heavy.  It's pretty clear that they've figured out how to do a very good job of showing you who's where.

I've been writing quite a bit this winter about Trackleaders.  That's mostly because they're what's being used by most races, but it's given me an opportunity to think about what they're doing and how it differs from what IonEarth is doing, besides just the obvious use of inexpensive commodity hardware and a commercial tracking service.

I'm going to digress for a moment:  When I was in graduate school I TA'ed classes in introductory statistics and in research methods for library school students.  Most of the students had humanities backgrounds and were somewhere between disinterested and terrified when it came to quantitative tools.  Their understanding of the task at hand was that they had to take a chunk of numbers and calculate certain values from them.  I found this somewhat disturbing, since my understanding of statistics is that it's just a set of tools to help you summarize the data in a way that can help you figure out how things are going, answer important questions about whether or not you ought to be surprised, and help you develop intuitions about what's really going on.  It's unfortunate that the way the material was presented at that time tended to underscore that what matters is the arithmetic and tended to gloss over the more intuitive, visual aspects of it, because I think when you put people off from material like that they basically lose access to a very handy set of tools.  Obviously, for researchers and actual statisticians it's a lot more complicated than that, but for most of us it's just a way of grokking the bigger picture.

And this brings us back around to Trackleaders.  I have no affiliation with the company -- I just really like what they're doing.  And from my perspective what they're doing is a lot more than just showing you where teams are on a map.  Scott and Matthew, the company's founders, are bicycle ultraracers themselves, and so they've got a natural interest in representing the race and how it's unfolding, rather than just solving the technical problem of plotting individual locations.  That's come out in some very handy tools like the Race Flow Chart, and the speed charts on individual pages (if you haven't spent time with those, you might go back and take a look).  I think Trackleaders strength is in giving us tools to understand how a race is really going, while IonEarth is doing a top-notch job just giving us reliable location data (and as we've seen from other races, that's not easy and not everybody can be anywhere near as reliable).

I'm hopeful that IonEarth will start to provide more interesting tools.  This year it looks like the major advance over previous years is the ability to receive personalized updates on up to five mushers.  That's nice, but I'm not sure it's going to help me understand the bigger picture better, or tell me how the race is really unfolding.  Obviously it's all a work in process and things will be changing over time, and IonEarth has some top-notch people and outstanding technology.  I'm really, really interested to see what kinds of directions they decide to take the technology, and whether or not they adapt their business model in response to challenges created by lower-cost competitors.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, a very nice article on this subject. Having just signed up for the iditarod package - I can see right away the IonEarth site is really behind Trackleaders in the areas you suggest - how the race is unfolding, data analysis, data access. I wonder what they will do with on-trail rests? I sort of suspect there will not be a little campsite symbol as with Trackleaders coverage on the Quest.