By Ryan Skinner (email)
The very idea of crowdsourcing makes many people's eyelids flutter. "Oh, please, once you turn something over to the crowds, the result is a mess," many would say. Attitudes towards inviting strangers to do constructive work are still unstable.
So why would the shipping industry entrust the process of managing information about a critical topic, such as piracy, to crowdsourcing? Maybe it's the only way, and the best way, to get the job done.
Consider the DARPA contest late last year. This US authority sought to test out how well crowds could complete tasks vital to national defense. Teams were invited to design a process that would identify ten red weather balloons placed conspicuously around the US, and do it as fast as possible. The MIT team was able to identify all ten longitude and latitude locations in less than nine hours.
So it is with OceanusLIVE. The guys behind it, Glen Forbes and Ryan Wallace, played a crucial role building up the architecture for data exchange used by EUNAVFOR - a job that got their inspiring leader, Captain Richard Farrington, well-deserved credit. Now the two have set up OceanusLIVE to provide the same communication infrastructure used by the navies, to the shipping industry.
What they've created is a structured information flow, monitored by watchkeepers, that can channel sightings, observations, passages, attacks and any other relevant information, coming in from throughout the merchant fleet. The system is designed to provide a rich online experience, as well as offline functionality that gives seafarers a picture that is "as real-time as you can get".
Of course, the trick with many such crowdsourced endeavours is scaling. You need widespread pick-up for there to be any value. Imagine the value of Wikipedia if the whole thing was written by your neighbour Verne and his cousin Jim. Not so great. OceanusLIVE is tackling this by trying to build its legitimacy from within shipping's organizations - IMO, Royal Navy, International Chamber of Shipping, Intertanko, etc.
Once you're in OceanusLIVE, you have a number of forums for information exchange, and a series of chat channels - either for simple collaboration (piracy in Malacca Straits, for example) or emergencies. "Last year the Baltic froze over, putting 80-odd ships in danger there. They could have had a tremendous advantage from an easy way to communicate. That's what we aim to provide," says Wallace.
OceanusLIVE was started by Wallace and Forbes, but has partnered up with a UK IT company called Polymorph for its back-end software functionality, and with Lloyd's Register - Fairplay to help build databases and the web-site. Forums and news are meant to be free, with a monthly or yearly subscription for the collaborative chat centres. OceanusLIVE plans to launch a beta during October/November, and start generating revenue before year's end.
For the time being, I imagine OceanusLIVE's main challenge is related to the limitation of real-time communications. Ashore, you can fire away; at sea, always-on access is limited. With that said, they seem ahead of their time in many ways, and are getting well-positioned as the service of choice for real-time maritime collaboration. Keep your eyes on the space: www.oceanuslive.org.