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Informal use of SpotWalla as a tracking tool for event organisers - a post-mortem.

Following on from the NZ Distance rider's NI1600 event, held in October 2019, it's worth a bit of a review of the use of SpotWalla during the event, as a tool for the organisers and riders. - I've felt this is necessary as there were a number of things learnt from that event which I think we can build on to make things work better, and for this to be more useful for future events.


Our setup / a bit of background

I stepped in to help the NZDR crew with a couple of things before the event, sorting out using SpotWalla in some form of official capacity (the first year we've tried this) was one of those areas.

SpotWalla is a free, web based service provided by a Long Distance rider in the USA, for use by others around the world, to track individuals, and optionally to bring those individuals together into event based groups. SpotWalla is free for the individuals to use, and they also do not currently charge anything for event organisers to create a group, into which individuals can opt-in. These groups are called 'Location Pages', and an administrator for each location page is capable of setting various options up for the page, including the join / view passwords, whether speed details are shown, for what range of dates the pages remain active etc.

For our NI1600 and NI800 events we requested two location pages from SpotWalla, they were happy to help out and delivered these to us with around 4 weeks to go before the event.

The reasons for setting this up, and to request riders to get involved in this were:

  1. To provide HQ with a degree of knowledge on where the bunch of riders where, where the head and tail of the pack was.
  2. To potentially be able to notice if anyone had needed to stop. - (This didn't work, as people's trackers were dropping in and out during the NI1600).
  3. To potentially provide riders, and their support groups (family etc), a means of taking an interest in the event and where everyone was. (I know that as we were riding round, we took interest in the NI800 group, seeing where we were in the pack - just for interest's sake, we could see JMa consistently ahead of us throughout the day, and we were able to spot where ATh and CLa were too for the entire ride.
  4. It helped immensely for us to have some full, valid ride tracks for the NI1600 ride, which were then used to prove distance for the ride to the Iron Butt Association for those x8 riders who wanted IBA certification this year.

This was entirely optional for all riders. While there isn't any cost associated with SpotWalla, there are some small costs associated with the app which you need to download and run on your cellphone, and so this was entirely optional.

When it came closer to the weekend, through the Facebook group, and via email, we notified the riders of the intention to trial SpotWalla in the event and invited people to read through a detailed blog post on how to set themselves up with a SpotWalla tracking app, and then also join into the relevant Location page. I made myself available to help during those weeks, and anyone who struggled with this was free to call me and request assistance.

In the lead up to the event, we were collecting riders into those Location pages, and together were able to see the accumulation of riders before the event, all in our 'home locations'.  - It was actually quite a lot of fun (personally), watching those tracking flags descend on Turangi for the weekend. 🙂

During the briefing night, there were about three riders who needed some further assistance to get their tracks refreshed and working again. A number of others were keen but had left it a little late to get involved for 2019.

In the end we had 2/3 of the NI1600 field, just under 20 riders, and just over 30 of the NI800 field running SpotWalla tracking on the day. While this didn't cover the entire field, it did provide a reasonable indication of where people were. - Or it did, while the trackers were running.

Here's Glenn's track:


Findings and feedback

The NI800 riders set-off first, and being one of them, I know from looking at the tracking web page as we were riding round, that it worked pretty well. Certainly the head of the field had good solid results and very few trackers dropped off entirely.

Here's my Trip page for my NI800 track: https://spotwalla.com/tripViewer.php?id=2084d5d986b2468f6d&hoursPast=0&showAll=yes

This might be because of the Double Badger, and for the first year a lot of pretty serious LD riders opted to do the NI800 ride as the first of their two Double Badger rides. It also happens to be those riders who tended to end up at the front of the NI800 pack throughout the ride. It's also these guys who run SpotWalla already, and perhaps have more experience of what's required to keep the trackers running, and are also best setup on their bikes with Auxiliary charging power supplies to their phones etc etc...

The NI800 ride is half the overall distance and time of the NI1600 ride, and so arguably, there's less stress / strain on the cellphone battery life during that event. Also we were generally pretty lucky with the weather, and so we didn't have to contend with cellphones or charging plugs getting wet etc.

In my view the NI800 ride views were fairly solid.

This feedback from one of the organisers:

It’s a nice addition, it is not reliable. Be it rider equipment, coverage or the system, there was a mixture of working well, not working at all, randomly working for periods, some didn’t work in the beginning, others stopped during the middle and others stopped towards the end. Some also started after not working. Compounded by internet connectivity issues, it added admin overhead keeping it working, messing around with wireless connectivity, but was a really good addition for spectators.

Ok, so from that feedback, we missed the mark quite a bit. So let's break that apart a bit...

Issues which were experienced

I have to start by saying that I wasn't present in HQ throughout this event much at all. - Only before the event, briefly at the end of my own NI800 ride, and then again in the Sunday morning for breakfast and a couple of hours...

One of the major issues which I noticed first hand was just general internet access and page loading issues, both the speed of page loads, and the stability of the connection were, to be honest, woeful. A decent internet connection is the very first prerequisite for an online system like this, and it's perhaps hard to judge other aspects of the service, if your general access to it, itself is unreliable.

So, that becomes the first recommendation for changes; a better connection for HQ.

Additional admin overhead: this is almost exclusively caused by a crappy underlying internet connection. - You can keep those SpotWalla location pages open and running for days if the connection permits it. And generally speaking the SpotWalla service can cope with a significant amount of traffic as it copes with the IBR every two years. - I think that if the internet connection is improved then the admin workload will be minimal.

Unreliable trackers: some coming in, some dropping out, some simply not working at all... The SpotWalla service relies upon each individual tracker being correctly connected and capable of sending in regular location updates (messages). If the SpotWalla page is working to show *any* of the riders, then there's a very good chance that a missing, stopped or failed track for an individual is down to the individual unit and not the main system.

In general terms, I believe we have to assume i) that the core system was up, running and responsive for the whole time and that any access issues were caused by local internet connection issues, and ii) that any unreliable trackers were down to the individual units, the setup, the current running of the app, the location services, their cellular connectivity etc. - All individual and device specific issues.

Areas for improvement

  1. Internet connection - I'm unsure what the strength of cellular internet services were like in the hall at the camp, but if there is reasonable 4G reception then it should be possible to get hold of a cellular hotspot unit for the weekend with a reasonable, one off data-bundle sorted. I've offered to try to source this for HQ for next year through our Spark business rep. - We'll need to confirm that there is reasonable 4G reception in the Turangi Kiwi holiday park, so if anyone remembers specifically how their Spark phone unit performed, please let me know.
  2. More time spent helping individual users get setup to be able to use SpotWalla successfully. Admittedly, it was rushed, and for a lot of people, this was the very first time they've tried to run a location tracking service on their cellphone during a super long ride. Prerequisites for a successful contribution to the tracking effort are:
    • A bike powered cellphone charger, or at very least good quality, and high capacity battery banks (2x 10,000 mAhr units for a NI1600).
    • A paid SpotWalla tracking app which is capable of, and set to perform 5 minutely updates.
    • A phone mount for your bike, so that you can see it, and so that it can get proper GPS signal, it's no good trying to put it in the top of a tank bag even - if the charging drops out, then you can't easily get to it to play with the plug etc.
    • Weather proofing for your phone's mounting location on your bike. It did rain on the NI1600 riders, and this created issues for some of them keeping their phones out, and running...
    • Experience using the tracker app, trying to get this reliably working fully on your first time doesn't always work.
    • The ability to check your own tracking points (at your first stop, and then at various points throughout the ride). - If you rely on being able to create a track for ride-proof, then you'll easily get into the habit of being able to check to see if your tracking messages have been getting through, once you know how to do this, it only takes a minute. - It requires you to have already setup a 'Trip' and for you to have a link to your trip already installed on your cellphone so that you can simply tap on an icon on your phone. It loads and you can see your points. - If you're sending in tracking points, and if you've already tested your contributions to the Location Page, then everything should then work.
    • People leaving on their 'Geofenced privacy zones'. - This can prevent you from allowing your contributed points from being shared into the location pages until you're more than 5km away from that point.
    • Your privacy settings / location usage settings on your phone. - We had one rider who couldn't get their location to update on the location pages, only to find that they had turned off their whole location / gps services on their phone a week or so before...

It's unlikely that we'll ever get all individual's to contribute 100% successful tracks. And while it's not mandatory to do this, and to keep them running, there's little motivation for riders to do anything other than 'try' when they're out there riding. In some longer events overseas there are 'bonus points' awarded for keeping trackers running, and in some cases, if there have been no updates for a while, then HQ will call a rider to check in on them. - That's never going to be the case for NZ events, partially because very few of us run Satellite based tracking units, we're far more cell-phone based, and for us, when we go into any of the Gorge sections of the North Island, we can expect our tracking points to drop out, for up to an hour!...


Anyway, as long as it's not creating too much hassle or headaches for people to continue to try this, then I believe it's worth it, the organisers have today indicated that they would like to continue to use this into next year's event. So, please take this as an encouragement for you (as a rider), to get out on your bike between now and then, and to become more familiar with SpotWalla, and how to use it to your own advantage.

I know that Wayne, who organises the TT2000 event, has already expressed an interest in trying to get some riders in that event contributing their locations into a shared page too, so that might be another step in the right direction for people becoming more familiar with how to use things. 🙂

I have also added in a blog post on this site explaining how to use SpotWalla Trips... 🙂

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