When Paper Fails Us

This past weekend our cycling club hosted a youth mountain bike race. I was given the task of organizing the event – setting the course, lining up volunteers, getting permits, soliciting prizes – the usual stuff.

I was also charged with the task of registering participants and capturing the results.

The problem was that 173 kids showed up to race in 4 different age / ability categories. Our largest category had 106 kids racing on the course at once.

Our system for registering kids was simple: write your name and bike number plate on a sheet of paper.

Our system for capturing the results was equally simple: write down the bike number plates onto a piece of paper as the riders cross the finish line.

Our system for handing out prizes was also equally simple: match first three bike number plates across the line to their names on the registration sheet, hand them a prize.

The whole system failed.

We had lots of upset parents and kids who could not get a proper accounting of their race result or overall performance. It was awful.

So we took stock of the problem in order to search for a solution. Because there were so many kids on the course at once, two major issues emerged:

  1. We had trouble capturing, manually, all of the bike plate numbers as dozens of kids crossed the line just a few seconds apart.
  2. We actually had kids lap the slower kids, so we were unsure of which kids were on which lap and couldn’t properly identify the race leader.

So our simple manual system that worked so well in the past absolutely failed when the race scaled up and got more complex.

Paper failed.

We needed digital.


Image courtesy of www.24hoursofadrenalin.com

In order to properly identify and track a large number of participants in a short period of time, you need the assistance of a computer. Only a machine can accurately capture that much data in that short of a timeframe.

People using paper can never match the speed and accuracy of a digital system.

There are lots of digital timing systems available. They all migrate the paper-based results system into a digital system in three ways:

  1. They register participants digitally, so the machine can match a result to a person.
  2. They attach a digital identity device to the person, so the results can be captured by a computer.
  3. They report the results in real-time – as soon as the participant crosses the line.

The technology is quite simple. A chip that identifies the athlete is attached to the athlete or the bike. An antenna that captures the moment the athlete crosses the line is attached to the computer.


Image courtesy of www.mylaps.com

Once the antenna is triggered, it sends the data to the computer who then logs the time that the athlete crossed the line. From that data it can calculate race time, race laps, lap position, and final position. In real time.

The joy that we see in the eyes of participants as they get instant feedback on their performance is truly awesome. Even if the performance isn’t their best, they appreciate the feedback confirming what they already feel.

Where can we go with this technology?

In future, this technology could provide statistics on athletes from race to race, or year over year. We could analyze performance data over certain sections of the race, looking for ways to improve athlete results, or improve the actual racecourse. We could even create a system for the racers to collaborate – providing each other with information, ideas and support. All linked to real-time results.

Paper can be wonderful for its simplicity, ease of use, and low cost. However, it cannot deliver the results when the racing gets big or fast. Or when we want to do more with the information we gather.

This was our last race using paper.

We are working to acquire the technology needed to replace paper at our next race. We will not be failed by our paper-based system the next time.

And our athletes and their families will appreciate it.

Connections Blog

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