Programming for Real Time -

2013-04-23 16:41:00 +0000

I recently deployed a website called for the world’s largest trivia contested. Each year, 90FM in Stevens Point (the UW-Stevens Point radio station) hosts an over the radio trivia contest. Teams listen to 8 questions an hour and call in answers for points. There are also other events for points, such as a driving scavenger hunt, a running scavenger hunt, and 1-2 second clips of songs that must be identified. There were 376 teams this year and tens of thousands of total players. Scores are posted on the website about 2 hours after the hour ends. So the scores for hour 2 get posted at the end of hour 4. The website isn’t very easy to use, and you have to constantly check to keep track of your scores. I thought I could make it much easier. I wrote my site to scrape the score page and save the scores for each hour. I then set up a form for people to register their email/phone number and team name. When new scores were scraped, it would notify them with their place and score. I also set up team pages that let you see all your scores for this and past years at a glance, rather than going through 50 pages to find the changes.

The main issue with writing a site like this is deal with scraping the score page. It changes minorly every year, and the scraping must be changed to meet it. Since this is a real time event, with players hungry to find out their scores, it is a bit hard to fully test and be ready for all the curveballs. Last year the site didn’t work, and I gave up after a couple hours. It is very hard to play the trivia contest, program, and drink all at the same time! Here are the things I think made this year a success and things that could have been done better:


I would have had a much harder time diagnosing and fixing the site if I wasn’t using a lot of logging and Sentry. Sentry is a server that you can send all your logs to and easily sort and view the messages via a web page. I was able to notice issues much faster and deal with them much more easily because of Sentry. Also, seeing minor errors popping up is reassuring. It is much more likely I made a small mistake somewhere than I made no mistakes anywhere and there are no error logs being generated. Even just shooting off an info logging message is reassuring.

Test like the event is happening

Your tests should mirror the entire event, not just points in the event. For example, a lot of my testing focused on getting past years data, where all scores were available. The testing should have been in stages, like “only hour 1 posted”, “hours 1 and 2 posted”, “hours 1 and 3 posted, 2 is missing”, etc.

Things are going to go wrong

In recent years, 90FM created a new page with something like “resultsXX.html”, where XX was the hour number. This year, they only had a results.html with all the scores that got changed each hour. That means there will be no archival like past years, which allowed me to get past years if there was a problem. I made an assumption that I could use the XX in the page name to figure out which hour was posted. That was easier than parsing “RESULTS FOR HOUR XX” at the top of the page. Once the first scores got posted, I realized my mistake, and fixed it in a few minutes. I’m very happy it was an easy fix, or I could have lost an hour worth of scores!

You made a mistake somewhere

The assumption above lead me to an edge case that I had properly tested. Because I had to change how the numbering worked, it messed up which hours were getting emailed out as scores got posted. When hour 1 was up, it emailed out hour 1. When hour 2 was up, it still emailed out hour 1. Same for hour 3, which is when I realized and started fixing it. Once you start getting curveballs thrown at you, all those little bugs in your code are going to be much more apparent. Proper testing that really keys in on edge cases will help avoid this, but you never know when something is going to go horribly wrong.


If you hit an unexpected issue in your code, everything could break. For example, if there was a problem while notifying players that I didn’t catch, all subsequent notifications will be lost. I could go delete all the scores for that hour, re-scrape them, and then hope notifications don’t fail again. However, that isn’t elegant. Having checkpoints in your code where you can replay an event as if it just happened makes life much easier after you fix the issue. A smart way to do this would be saving a small log object to the database, representing a successful notification, or adding a field to each subscriber for “last hour notified”. Another option is adding a command to re-send notifications for a certain team/hour combo. I went for the even easier version: resend all notifications. My thought was that it was more likely that the whole thing would break rather than just sometimes breaking for certain users. I created a Django management command for notifications and a debugging flag to test the notifications before actually sending them. In the end, it worked fairly well. A few people missed the first few hours because they put in the wrong team name, so they got no notification (which I manually corrected).

Another possible replay would have been downloading the page and running the scraper against that. If there was an issue, I’d at least have the page still around. If something had gone totally wrong and I didn’t fix it before the next hour went up, I could have lost those scores forever.


Overall, has 477 unique visitors (with 376 total teams) and over 15k page view during the contest. A lot of people were very interested and appreciative. Needless to say, I’m excited to improve it for next year.


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