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B-Tags, Photos, Technology & Surveillance

My Wife and I ran the Cooper River Bridge Run last April with 27, 461 other finishers. It was our first 10K road race and a goal of ours after finishing several 5Ks.

Road races are a big deal in our local area as the weather is “nice” throughout the year. The biggest race of the year tends to be the Cooper River Bridge Run, which is held in early April. The race takes you over the beautiful Cooper River Bridge and ends in downtown Charleston…a couple blocks from my office and classrooms. I know this would be a big deal as the race is capped at 40,000 runners, but I wasn’t prepared for how big this event proved to be.

Before the race, there is a “expo” where you pick up your race materials. The expo is like a mix between a convention and a rock concert. They have free giveaways, demonstrations, bands playing outside, and pop-up restaurants serving meals. You can learn more about the race and expo at the video below.

When I picked up my race materials at the Expo, I was shocked at how many people were there, and the level of organization involved to process 40,000 people. We received a clear bag/backpack with our race bib (number), pins, and some other swag. The clear backpack is the only bag you’re allowed to bring to the race for security reasons.

Tracking You

What stuck out to me the most was the use of the “ChronoTrack timing chip and bib” that was referenced in the video above. The ChronoTrack B-Tag consists of two stickers that contain RFID antennas. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags are passive technology used to track items and communicate their location to electronic readers. As an example, you can think about the tiny sensors they put into materials or objects you’d buy from a store. In the future, we could see a time/place where you fill up your cart with your purchases and walk out of the store. Sensors would read the RFID tags, calculate what you purchased, and debit an amount from your bank account.

In a road race, the RFID tags are embedded in your racing bib. Your racing bib is the piece of “paper” you pin to your shirt that indicates your number, name, and other medical information. The racing bib is also what gets you on/off the shuttles for the race. Businesses also offer “freebies” for people that are wearing the bib.

As you run the race, the RFID tags communicate your position as you cross the timing mats throughout the course. They start (and mark) your time as you begin the race, and again at the end. At each of the major gates in the course, they mark your time to get up to that point. The nice thing about this is that you’re not worried as you need to wait for thousands of people to start before you actually get to the start of the race. You can also go online and find out your exact times for the race. All in all, it is an elegant solution to track a large amount of runners in the race, while making this data easy to collect, archive, and share.

What is a bit disconcerting about this use of technology is the slight invasion of privacy you have in the use of RFID and sharing this information openly online. In the image below, you can see the results for myself and my Wife. All I added was our last name, and I was able to find our age, city/state of registration, and times. I’m sure (I hope this to be true) that at some point, I signed broad permission to share all of this openly online. I also know that be interacting in public, there are certain expectations that I can have for privacy and security.

Other than the fact that my Wife was 21 seconds ahead of me (she doesn’t let it go :) ), I don’t have any other concerns about this information being online. But, I do need to wonder about whether this is acceptable or appropriate for others.

Watching you

One of the other aspects of the large scale race and crowd was the ability to have photos and video taken of us and shared broadly. Once again, by interacting in a public event, we have to modify our expectations of privacy and security. I also know that we’re in a digital, social society and people will share tons of content to social media as a way to bond and relish these moments.

I’ve also been to Disney World where RFID tags in wristbands are used to let you in your rooms, on rides, pay for dinner, and identify you to photographers. Last time we were in Disney World, a photographer was stationed in a picturesque spot with a line of people waiting patiently for their turn. When we made it to the front of the line, we posed and had our pictures taken. I prepared to reach for my wallet, or take a slip of paper to learn where I could go to retrieve the photos. The photographer indicated that I could go to a specific website for Disney Memory Maker Photos. She tapped my RFID-laden wristband to the camera, and we were on our way. Within a few days, the photos showed up in my email inbox. I thought…this is amazing.

Bringing us back to the Bridge Run, my Wife and I carried our phones, but didn’t take them out during the race for photos because we were…busy. Actually, we did take one photo while just about to cross the top of the bridge.

We did notice that all along the race route, photographers and video cameras were placed on cranes, overpasses, and on stages near the event. What we found out later is that we could access all of those photos, but we didn’t even need to tap our magic band to the cameras along the way.

The goal of race directors is now to make the event unique, unforgettable, and an immediate social media experience. Race day photos are part of this experience. The race bib that I mentioned earlier is a part of this system. As you run by, hundreds of photographers take pictures and all of this content is loaded into one database. Sophisticated machine learning software scans the photos for your bib number, and the QR code (square digital barcode) that on the front of the bib. The software then pulls together all of the photos that it believes you’re in (as indicated by the bib #, QR code, and your time-tracking/RFID chip) and makes these photos available to you for purchase.

Apparently this type of service is getting even more advanced. Soon you’ll be able to get real-time photos/video shared to social media, as well as race videos showing your route and highlights along the way. The ability to capture and collect high-quality photos of these memories is invaluable. The technology involved is amazing and serves a real human need. I want to be able to show family, friends, and most of all our children what we did that day. Just looking back at these photos helps relieve these memories and gets me excited for the next race.

Yet, I must still consider the privacy and security implications of these tools and services. Used for this purpose, I see the need and value. I wonder about the company that is collecting this information and what they might do with it. I wonder what happens with these photos after they have not been claimed. At first, the photography company indicated that there was a deadline to claim them. Yet, I still get emails from them to order my prints. I’m not suggesting that this photography company is doing anything nefarious with photos of me slowly bumbling through this race. But, we live in a world where data breaches and hacks happen. We must ask these questions. We must think about the tradeoffs.

I also wonder about I’m also wondering about how many times a service like this has been used when I don’t know about it. I work in a small city that has cameras all over the place. In most modern cities we have cameras on most of the street signs and should ask questions about what this data is used for, and where it should not be used. Is there an instance where the data should be deleted? Who owns this information? Just as I was looking for the photos of my family in Disney, or our time in the road race, do I also have the ability to access/use this content?

Missed steps

As I close this post, I wanted to share some of the photos taken and collected by these algorithms to get a better sense of what was included, and what was left out. You’ll see a couple photos that are great. You’ll also see a bunch of places in which the machines missed the mark, and we have photos of others. I shared these so you can see how amazing this technology is, and how we interfaced with it. Please review the post on my site to review these pictures.

In the photos you’ll notice a lot of “missed connections.” The system thought we were in the photo, but we were nowhere to be found. I shared a lot of these “mistakes” down below. I also have another dozen or so photos that are also errors as well. We were left to skim through photos of strangers to identify our presence. I wonder how these people feel about me viewing their photos. I wonder how I feel about others viewing my photos.

Wrapping up

These technologies provide amazing opportunities to provide real services to our lives. I experienced this first hand as we enjoyed our time in this road race, and will look forward to the next one together. I was impressed by the use of technology as I was interacting with these sources and signals. At the same time, I was still plagued by a number of questions as I was thinking about these tools, and other possible uses. In our current and future societies, we need to examine these uses and think about how or why we use these solutions.


Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.