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Interview with OpenTrack's founder

Since the team is so busy right now, we thought an interview would be a quick way to explain what the project is about. Gus Upton (Belgrave Harriers) interviews Andy Robinson, OpenTrack’s founder

In a nutshell, what is OpenTrack?

OpenTrack is a modern framework for taking entries, managing competitions and providing results for athletics, cross country events and relays.

How did you decide on the name OpenTrack?

The product name relates to the concept behind the OpenTrack project. OpenTrack is designed around accessibility: Open Source - everyone with similar goals, such the organisation of athletic clubs & leagues, will be able to join, use some of our components and contribute back; thus building and improving an understandable product for all. Open data & standards - everyone working off the same club IDs and venues so that spreadsheets, entry systems, photo finish and chip timing can all be linked together more efficiently.

The “Track” part is easy - we wanted to make it clear that we’re behind athletics and competitive running.

What is wrong with entry systems at the moment?

In short, time consumption. Too much time and effort is spent by hard working individuals on entries, declarations and processing results. We want to improve this for the benefit of everyone!

Working with Surrey County AA has shown us that to improve results, it has to start at the beginning - refining the entry system. Currently, far too much time is spent by volunteers validating data and doing computer-literate tasks; ranging from calculating age groups and figuring out how many U13 Boys want to run the 100m through to confirming if an athlete is a current club member. This is before the entries even begin!

In team situations, there’s usually a “declaration”. This is where a team manager says who is doing what. For track events, there can be a lot of people in different age groups and events. With relays, you might enter a number of teams and pay with a couple of weeks to go, but you need to say who’s doing what on the day. And with cross-country, you don’t know for sure who is turning up until the start.

The system currently often works on paper declarations - often an unreadable scrawl like the one on the left below - and hours of painstaking keying-in to get the results out. As an extreme example I remember Herne Hill’s 125th anniversary, when they decided to bring 125 runners to a race, and a poor clubmate had to sit for about 5 hours after the race trying to make sense of the scrawl, Google people to make sure they existed and get the runners’ names into a spreadsheet.

We’re now getting more than 80% of the entries put in by the team managers, either on race day at home or even at the start, as seen on the right below.

Old style
New style

OpenTrack aims to revolutionise this and bring entries and results into the modern world.

How will the new entry system change things for the better?

The first thing is to dramatically cut down the “official time” it takes to prepare for a competition. This sounds boring (unless you are one of the officials doing it!), but there are a limited number of volunteers in the sport, and if we can save them a few man-weeks every year, they can do more valuable things like organising more competitions or getting out and coaching kids.

We hope we can help boost the numbers too, with a few ideas like: Leting you amend or add to an entry up to the closing date Letting everyone see who else is entered, on a mobile, and like and share the event with their friends - e.g. dare them to race you in the county 5000 If you’ve planned the timetable but you only have 3 people in an 800m place, letting everyone know that there are slots available on the day.

And because the entries are all in a very standard structure, with validated, identified athletes and consistently formatted recent bests, it gets much easier to produce online timetables, and in due course to get the results out really quickly.

Is this the same issue for road races and other smaller athletic meets?

Road races are much simpler. By and large, an individual enters themselves in just one race.

Open Meetings need quite a bit of preparation, and inter-club and inter-school meetings don’t need entries per se, but everyone wants to get the results out quickly. So if you have a web based system and you can accurately input the athletes and what they are doing, you are a lot closer to getting the results out.

Quick results means that the athletes are happy, and the organiser doesn’t have to spend the weekend hunched over a computer - something I have done too many times!

We aim to publish results immediately, so, in an instant, schools will know how many places their runner needs to win by in the final race to overtake their rivals.

Does this mean all organisers/officials need to get clued up on Apple technology?

Not at all. Our system works in any modern web browser. And for screens that work on mobile, Android and IOS both work fine. We don’t have apps per se, just pages you browse to on mobile.

I don’t see people processing entries heads-down on a phone, but it’s really useful to have all the start lists and facts at your fingertips on a phone, and we think that’s where people will want to see results first. And it’s quite surprising how many Surrey League team managers will now whip out their phone at the start of a race and say “Oh, Fred’s here, let me just declare him”. This has really cut down on what used to be hours of typing before you could get the results out.

What is your inspiration/passion for the project?

It started out when I went to the World Masters in 2013. This is one of the biggest meetings in the sport - 10,000 people in 5 stadia across town over 10 days. I was shocked to realize that things still worked the way they did when I was a kid - most communication involved bits of paper on gym walls, the results looked like they came out of a 1980s computer printout, and there was no way to find out what was going on with timetables and medal ceremonies. And the meeting was being run by the market-leading software package.

When/where do you envisage it going?

In the long term, we’d like to make it really easy for anyone to organise an event with a team aspect, and to get the results out quickly. We hope this will make the sport fun for everybody.

What field market success/experience has it had already?

In terms of entries, what we have now grew out of about 12 months of real-world experience with a full year of entries for events at county level, and out of two seasons automating a busy cross country league. We also took on the British Masters Athletics Federation in January and have been handling all their entries and competitions; and right now we’re gearing up to do entries for four county championships.

Do you anticipate any teething problems?

Lots! Most people don’t realise that ease of use and reliability only come through constantly iterating, listen to your users and tuning things. For example, we now know that torrential near-freezing rain as the runners approach the finish does not mix with touch sensitive screens! But you come up with processes and checklists over time.

In particular, when we’re trying to do live timing and recording of events to get live results out, it’s really important that people keep their clipboards, pens and spreadsheets. We’re planning on a lot of redundancy.

Will this increase costs to the organiser and/or athlete?

At the moment, we’re charging a small slice of the entry fees, comparable to road race entry systems. But at some point, to really benefit the sport, we need to earn enough to pay good quality developers. This might come from charging for use, or from sponsorship, or perhaps from public sector support.

How soon can I use it?

Right now we’re still setting up the competitions for our clients, and we’re talking to about as many people as we can handle. The main thing is to get a process that works really well, and we’ll take as long as we need to. Our goal is to reach a point where you can set up your own competition without needing our help, and this will take some time.

There will, however, be assets that anyone can use from about May onwards: standard reference data, tools to check entries and do calculations, and hopefully some nice things for the athletes to play with.

How can other people help?

Check out our Volunteer page, or introduce yourself on the forum!

Want to give Opentrack a go?

Get in touch, or register for public access (coming soon)