Saturday, October 3, 2015

Race signups, fairness, and stress reduction

Today sign-ups for two of the most popular mid-distance races in Alaska, the Copper Basin 300 and the Knik 200, opened.  Because they are so popular and tend to become oversubscribed there's a crush of entries as soon as they open.  Unfortunately there have been technology failures for both races, and mushers don't know whether or not they're in.  Copper Basin has responded by providing alternative mechanisms for entering, and the Knik is, so far, sticking with web-based race entry.

We've got a few goals here at Mushing Tech.  Among them is that we'd really like to make life easier for volunteers - without them there's no race, and being a race volunteer can be exhausting and stressful.  I have very little doubt that the Copper  Basin and Knik volunteers handling race entries are extremely stressed right now.  Additionally, a number of mushers are questioning the fairness of the entry systems.  Towards the bottom of this post I'll discuss the fairness question in more detail (particularly sources of statistical unfairness) but I think the more important question is what can be done to make everybody's lives a little easier, reduce stress levels, and reduce both the likelihood and the impact of technology failures.

I think the number one thing that can be done to improve race registrations would be to move away from the current land rush model, where everybody's trying to get their entry in early.  Using this model creates a load on the race registration system that unintentionally increases the likelihood of  technology failure.  If races were instead to announce that they'd be doing random drawings on a given date, mushers would be able to enter at their leisure by that date, use varying technologies to submit their entry application (email, postal mail, etc.), and would be less likely to feel disadvantaged if they have only very slow or intermittent connectivity.  There are some excellent sources of randomness available both on our own computers and online (see, for example, this) which can be used to draw from the pool of entries.  Races can set aside some slots for veterans or for people running qualifiers and do random draws for everybody else, etc.  The main thing is to remove the pressures associated with getting an entry form in before everybody else.

Copper Basin has responded to their web outage by allowing mushers to enter by phone (voicemail) or email, and then the race organization will rely on timestamps to determine entry order.  This has a number of problems with it, including that there's an excellent chance that the clocks on their computers and voicemail are not synchronized.  Depending on whether or not the voicemail system is run by the phone company or is a home answering machine, it's possible that there's what's called in computing "head of line" blocking, where a queue is blocked on action on the head of the line, and queue members can only be serviced one at a time, unlike email, which can be received in parallel.  Plus, voicemail is slower, both because of connection latency (the phone has to ring and be answered) and because it's just slower to leave a voicemail than it is to send a piece of email.  So, we suspect that people who used voicemail to register were statistically disadvantaged relative to people who used email.  However, people who live remotely and use satellite internet were disadvantaged relative to people who use DSL or cable for their internet connectivity, since the round-trip latency for satellite is at least 1/2 second (laws of physics!) and typically much higher.  However, unlike the voicemail situation we'd be a bit surprised if delay associated with satellite internet had much of an impact on signup order.  Similarly, if the issues with the Knik website are failures to establish a TCP connection to the race's web server, those who can retry quickly have an advantage over those with slow or high-latency connectivity.

At any rate, the goal here is to keep everybody happy: volunteers should not be stressed and mushers should feel that they're being treated fairly.  We suspect that the current registration model doesn't really lend itself to that goal, and that a deadline model has a number of advantages over a land rush model.