The Confusion Over Checkpoint vs GPS Live Tacking for Events

September 24th, 2018
By Seth Bibler, Founder & CEO

Don't be fooled. There is a lot of confusion around live tracking of athletes at endurance events. The issue has been compounded in recent years with the advent of event-provided checkpoint tracking. No solution is perfect. Here's the lowdown on what you should know.

There're 2 basic forms of live tracking at a race:

1. Checkpoint-based - athletes pass by checkpoints along the course. Once their pace over previous segments is known, an estimate of their current position and ETA is given.

2. GPS or location-based - athletes carry a GPS sensor that also has a live data connection to a server online. GPS positions are then interpreted by an engine, translated into course progress, etas, and other metrics about their race, then shown to fans in real-time.

Event-provided tracking is usually checkpoint-based. They have timing chips and mats to use as checkpoints so adding an app is relatively easy. Timing chips are usually simple devices that only work when athletes cross timing mats or antennas instrumented along the race course. They make good checkpoints.

Almost every other tracking device that athletes bring themselves are GPS-based. Examples include dedicated live tracking devices, specialized athletic watches, bike computers, smart phones, or smart watches. Many are capable of live tracking, although some require the use of a phone for internet connection, and each option has its pros and cons. I'll have a look at the pros and cons of these different kinds of devices with regard to live tracking in another article.

Now that we have the high-level differences established, let's have a deeper look at each. There are some important considerations, pros and cons.

Checkpoint-based tracking

Race progress is estimated and measured based on when an athlete passes known checkpoints - usually timing equipment. Then their current position and ETAs are calculated by an algorithm somewhere along a course. Often the current position is shown animated as a moving pin on a map or even looking like GPS-nav style animation.

Checkpoint Pros:

Checkpoint Cons:

While widespread and available at many events worldwide, the biggest downside of checkpoint tracking is it leads fans to believe that athletes are being GPS tracked. The most common visual is a smoothly animated opaque pin or dot. This is deceptive. Many fans don't see, understand how/why, or simply ignore the little warnings that say it is an estimate only.

My takeaway is that visually treating checkpoint tracking like GPS tracking is generally not a good approach. There are more accurate and honest ways to present this information that will lead to a better experience for those following live.

For now, my advice to fans is to be very cautious about believing what they see with checkpoint-only solutions. They may be accurate sometimes but are often off by minutes or more.

When trying to meet an athlete along the course, arrive early and be patient. They probably won't pass by when the pin moves past your location, even if it sometimes worked in the past.

Tip : You'll know if an event's tracking is checkpoint-based if they say "checkpoint" or use the word "algorithm." In case you don't know: algorithm is nothing more than a big word for describing how to do something. A cooking recipe is an algorithm. They range from very simple to extremely sophisticated. Classically, it was used most by mathematicians and computer-scientists. Marketers and sales people use it to make tech sound fancy. In the case of checkpoint-based tracking the algorithm may as simple as an average pace from previous course segments, forecast to the present. At that basic level it can be very inaccurate for a wide variety of reasons.

GPS/location based

GPS tracking far more accurate and useful for live tracking purposes. Athletes regularly carry race-legal GPS devices. Some devices also have a live data connection and can be used for live tracking. When live tracking is turned on these devices persistently report their current position at regular intervals (e.g. every 30 seconds). Since it is being carried by the athlete it follows them no matter where they go. Course progress, ETAs and estimated real-time positions can be provided in real-time more accurately. However, there are some challenges with GPS tracking as well.

GPS Pros:

GPS Cons:

That last point is probably the biggest obstacle to widespread live GPS tracking at events. It is more difficult to build the engine that will always give accurate statistics using GPS data alone than it is for checkpoint solutions. Even with GPS tracking it is very important to move beyond pins or dots on a map, which raises the bar even further.

Our platform uses patent-pending AI and a few other techniques to assist with many of the cons. It is robust to many of the above challenges. We'll be adding features soon and more statistics now that we have this foundation.

The best of both worlds? Checkpoint and GPS combined

The best possible live tracking experience in the near-future could use both checkpoint and GPS data. By incorporating both many of the downsides can be mitigated while getting the best of both. As such we are working on integrating checkpoint data into our system so that your next race could have the best possible tracking experience. Our first integration will be with race|result's systems.
There is much more to come on this and will be discussed in future articles.