Saturday, May 19, 2012

St Albans parkrun

Not the most technical course even by Verulamium standards
Parkrun keeps coming up when people discuss how orienteering should be attempting to present itself, and today I got a first chance to try it out. The St Albans version started in January this year in Verulamium, one of our regular Saturday Series areas. This was also a chance to work out how we might need to modify Saturday Series arrangements to avoid any clash.

The idea is very simple: a 5km run held every Saturday morning in the same place. Entry is free but you need to register on the website beforehand. This allows you to print off a bar code to take with you. Then all you need to do is turn up on the start line and join in. I set off with 120 other runners as the bells of St Michael's Church chimed 9.00 o'clock. A show of hands on the start line showed quite a high proportion of first timers like me (nearly a third looking at the results) but the course instructions were quite simple: follow the guy in white and do three laps of the lake.

The race itself was pretty much what I expected: a few fast guys at the front, a few walkers at the back and quite a cross-section of shapes, sizes and speeds in the middle. I set off too fast as normal, and got passed by people as the race went on, including two runners about half my height who turned out to both be 14. Three laps of the lake is just about manageable before terminal boredom sets in and then it's just a short sharp 5 metre climb to the final long flat finish straight. My target had been 22 minutes so 21:55 was perfectly acceptable even if my watch did only register 4.95km. Maybe next time I won't do 5 km beforehand running to the start from home. After crossing the finish line you are given a small plastic tag with a finish position and bar code on it: the modern equivalent of the good old raffle ticket which nearly made it in at number 2 on my list of orienteering things you didn't know you had missed. Results are done using a phone to read your registration bar code (carefully retrieved from a plastic bag in the pocket on my shorts) and your finish tag, and the correlated with finish times recorded on the finish line. Results were on the website that afternoon and I even got a text message telling me how I had done.

So why is this proving so successful and what can orienteering learn from it?

The format is simple, easy to understand and accessible. Everybody has a reasonable concept of what 5 kilometres on a surfaced path involves. It's far enough to be a worthwhile run for most, but short enough not to put people off. And you don't need to keep looking at the fixtures list to find when the and where the next event is.

The technology is used very effectively. The website is attractive and informative. Registration and timing bar codes are simple and work well.

Requirements for volunteer effort are relatively small. Eight people are acknowledged on the results page. I spotted one finish timer, two on results download, and three or four marshals on the course.  Doing away with registration by asking people to do it on the website is a key saving.

It's free. To be honest I'm sure people would be willing to pay one or two pounds if asked, but if the financial model doesn't need it then this can surely only help to increase attendance.

Much of this is of course is where Orienteering on demand is trying to go.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Orienteering On Demand

Orienteering on demand results screen

After a lot of discussion I have finally developed a prototype of a web front end for my Orienteering on Demand concept. Helen has been looking at various ways of making permanent courses more usable (and used) and this often came down to some sort of mobile phone app. Last year we put together an Android app that read QR codes, recorded split times and then uploaded them to the web. What was really needed was a better web end to display results.

I've now put together a first attempt at that website. This turned out to be quite a lot easier than expected once I had discovered yii. (If you wouldn't know a PHP framework from an overgrown  re-entrant then don't worry. If you would, then yii is highly recommended.)

It's very early stages at present, but it shows a lot of the ideas. The bit I'm particularly pleased with is the GPX file upload. This allows you to upload a GPX file from a phone or watch, and then works out how close you got to each of the controls on a course. True virtual orienteering in action. The current site includes a few example GPX files of me running around the local park.

I'm still not sure quite where this is going. Do I want to run a single website for the world to use (the Winsplits approach) or would it be easier to allow clubs to run their own sites (the Routegadget approach)? Do I make it open source and let people add their own enhancements? Do I publish an API to allow people to interface their own apps? We'll see what the response is.

There's a lot more to do, but as a start I reckon this is now worth letting into the wild.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Westfield Orienteering

How difficult can it be to navigate round a shopping centre? Harder than you might imagine when it is Westfield overlooking the Olympic Park at Stratford, with four main levels plus three separate car parks each with nine floors. You can see a map extract on the left, and the full map is here. At one point I had to check the lift buttons to confirm that it wasn't possible to get to the Second floor of the shopping centre from where I was at the time. I least I didn't end up taking the lift between controls as many people did even if it is apparently quicker to go both up and down nine levels in a lift than it is to run the stairs. And just to put you off there was a view of the Olympic Stadium around every corner. I can confirm that the roof of Car Park A (that's level P9 if you are paying attention) should provide a great view of the Olympic Opening Ceremony. I wonder if they are selling tickets?

Meanwhile back at the orienteering, the event was the inspiration of Josh Jenner, who had negotiated access early on a Sunday morning, before the shops opened. The next master stroke was to convince Ollie O'Brien (the City of London Race mapper) to produce the map. Nearly 100 people took part, split over five mass starts at 15 minute intervals from 09.00 to 10.00. The start was headlong down the steps towards Stratford International Station, although some did turn straight round and head back indoors to avoid the cold wind. Control 101 was 10 m from the start horizontally, and an equal distance vertically. After that there was a chance to start working out how to join up all 28 controls on the 60m sprint to 102. I think it is safe to say that nobody will have come up with the same route.

I set out with the intention of simply doing a level at a time and working from the bottom to the top. This turned out to be a rather naive plan as it became apparent that getting between levels was not trivial. Stairs and elevators were helpfully marked with brown and blue arrows (brown for down to the earth, blue for up to the sky), but they weren't always where you wanted, and some were blocked off by building work. Just working out where the various bits of map joined together proved quite a challenge, not helped when you found out that level P4 in Car Park C was above Level P5 in Car Park A for instance. Controls were distributed across three terrain types: indoor shopping centre, outdoor ground level (including a trip to Stratford Underground and Bus Station) and car park roof level. You can see a few more photos here.

My GPS watch ended up showing 5.12km in 30.53, although it clearly struggled quite a lot with the indoor bits, and my route choice was far from ideal. Most people seem to agree that getting them all involved something around 5km, which for an area little more than 500m by 400m (by about 30m) is quite impressive. The results show that 39 people managed to get all the controls in the 45 minute time limit, plus quite a few who thought they had only to find they had missed one or two (or three or four...). James, Peter and Helen went round together and managed to get them all in 37:29 although this was apparently helped by having two maps so they could take it in turns to plan ahead and navigate.

A great day out, and one which will hopefully be repeated (and extended) later.