Sunday, January 6, 2013

Race tracking and personal trackers

As I've discussed before, one of the things that's transformed distance mushing into a spectator sport and expanded the fan base is the availability of near-real-time race tracking by services like IonEarth and Trackleaders.  People love to watch their favorite teams move down the trail, see where they are in relation to other teams, and understand the drama of a dogsled race in a way that wasn't really possible before.  They can watch passes, they can make inferences about strategy from things like run/rest schedules, and they can see teams approaching checkpoints.  This makes race websites "sticky" - fans either park on the site for a long time when they anticipate something important is about to happen, or they just keep checking back frequently through the day.  This engagement can translate into various sorts of support for the race, and particularly into financial support (buy a mile programs seem to do well, tchatchke sales, etc.).

Not every race provides tracking services.  It's not free and it requires volunteer effort to mount trackers on sleds, reset tracking devices, etc.  It can be seen to be more trouble than it's worth, even acknowledging how it engages fans.  But as the price of the devices has dropped and tracking becomes more "normal," more and more dog teams are buying their own trackers and making their tracking pages public (see Brent Sass, Jake Berkowitz, Paige Drobny and Cody Strathe, and Kristy Berington, among others).  Fans love watching teams out on epic training runs, or just puttering around the neighborhood.

One of the things that's happened in several races in the past year, notably the TOTW 350, is that a team will carry a personally-owned tracker in an untracked race, and announce it to fans.  It's not at all the same as having a real tracking service for the race, since it doesn't show where other teams are or provide the analytical tools we've come to depend on.  But still, people watch those individual trackers, and during the TOTW I was surprised to find how closely they watch those trackers.

There was some confusion about start differentials and earliest leave-by times out of Chicken.  I'm not sure that anybody would have noticed except that several people saw Jake's tracker on the move before his earliest departure time, and started asking questions.  I ran through the earliest departure times listed on the TOTW website and found that they didn't match what was in the rules, and in particular nearly every team was listed as leaving 4 minutes later than they should, except for Jake, who was shown with an extra 16 minutes on his departure time.  If what was on the website matched what was going on in Chicken, he would have had an unearned 12-minute penalty.  Fortunately the website did not reflect what was happening in Chicken, and it was by all accounts a very fair race with no grievances filed.  (Actually, it sounds like it was a wonderfully-run, happy race that was enjoyed enormously by participants; see Mike Ellis's beautiful account here and Jodi Bailey's here).

It may be tempting for races who've made the decision not to put trackers on sleds to ban the use of personal trackers during a race, so if there is this sort of inconsistency it will go unnoticed and they won't have to answer questions about it.  I really hope they don't.  I think one of the takeaways from fan interaction with Jake's tracker in the TOTW 350 is that fans love the tracking services.  They watch them carefully, discuss them with other friends, and spend a lot more time actively following a race than they otherwise might.  I also think it's important to have fans supporting individual mushers, providing sponsorships, buying kennel memorabilia, and generally making it possible for teams to be able to afford the cost of running races in the first place.  It would be great if all distance races could provide online tracking services, but even if they can't personal trackers have a place in helping promote races and dog teams.


  1. I have often wondered with all of us having our own trackers.. is there some way to link them all together on Trackleaders or some similar software so that races don't have to foot that bill. what if a tracker was a piece of mandatory gear provided by the musher..

    1. Yes? The data are pulled out of pages for individual trackers, so there'd be some software involved. Writing a basic tracker is very straightforward (this only took a couple of hours and I'm not a Javascript/web programmer:, but writing a good one is a lot of work.

      It might be worth talking with the guys at Trackleaders about what would be involved and/or how much it would cost to use individually-owned SPOTs rather than theirs. It's also possible that the guy who did the tracker for the Percy might be willing to share.

      That's an interesting idea.