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Ben E

Active Captain route sharing dangerous?

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I like the idea of route sharing via Active Captain, as promised here:

But today I got this e-mail, which is going around amongst a group of very experienced cruisers:

"I read this with some amazement -- certainly in AC's technological expertise to be able to do this, but in absolute shock that a boat owner/skipper navigating a boat through unfamiliar waters would use somebody else's waypoints. Electronic navigation has its benefits, but in making the process of getting from point A to B so easy, aren't we actually making boating LESS safe. I can only imagine the lawsuits that are likely to result. Does anyone agree with me on this?"

Your thoughts?

4 Replies

  • I've been exploring the use of route sharing for about a decade. It's #2 of the 4 things designed for ActiveCaptain (#1 was point-of-interest crowd-sourcing). As with any technology on a boat from electronic charting to hydraulic steering, the technology can provide greater safety or less, generally depending on the person and how they are using it.

    If a user blindly grabs a route from someone else, pops it into their autopilot, presses GO, and goes below to watch a movie, they are clearly misusing the technology. On the other hand, I believe that even casual use of route sharing won't decrease safety, it'll significantly increase it.

    First, some comparisons to existing technologies. Certainly every reader here knows that on a variety of Garmin chartplotters you can select a destination and it'll automatically create a route. That route was never examined by a human - hopefully it'll be examined by at least one. The route will automatically avoid obstacles, land, buoys, etc. Has anyone with concerns about route sharing ever written to Garmin about this?

    Second, ChartKits, Abacos Guides, and other chart collections and guidebooks have suggested routes as long as they've existed. BSBv5 companion DVD's have those printed routes in electronic form. They are been used for over a decade as a general guideline for offshore passages by many thousands of boaters. And yet, not a single complaint or lawsuit.

    Here's the thing though. On those ChartKits, who's the person who created the route? What qualifications did they have? What do other people think about the route? What type of boat was suggested for the passage? The purchaser never knows.

    So now comes ActiveCaptain. Originally we were told that no one would ever share their anchorages for others to use. We now have the largest database of anchorages in the world. There are anchorages in my own Penobscot Bay that I didn't know about. So much for keeping the data secret.

    Next we were told that no one would ever listen to the advice of others and anchor in areas where there wasn't good chart data. The passage of time proves that multiple people are willing to provide their personal findings to the community. And that data is actually better than the official chart data whether it exists or not. Today we have more reviews than any other boating source that exists - thousands of percentage points higher than any other collection.

    So what's the magic with it all? Why are the experienced people always coming out with predictions of doom which turn out to be 180 degrees out of reality?

    The magic is people and community. The secret sauce is the mix of multiple people with different points of view and even different levels of experience coming together and having an easy way to contribute. That power of the crowd is aways unanticipated and always underrated whether it's about government structure in Egypt or marine navigation. We're just the first to attempt to organize it in a way that's fun, easy, and free.

    Now it's true that the sharing of routes can be misused too. A skipper isn't giving up his oversight responsibility just because he downloads the most popular route in ActiveCaptain's database (someday). He still needs to review it and adjust it for his own purposes in the same way he's currently evaluating anchorages and marinas today. What he will potentially get, however, are the comments and views of others who have gone on that route before. Others with possibly similar boats and similar styles of cruising. I'd argue that this type of data is what has been missing from the individual route generation that we all do by ourselves today. That we are much more likely to make an error when creating a custom one-use route than we would by using a route that was perhaps used already by a thousand sailors.

    Another laughable criticism of shared routes is the concern of the same route used by two or more people in reciprocal directions. This is given as if running a custom route from buoy to buoy which is how most are created is any safer. As if you are now allowed to give up control of your vessel because you're using a data file that you downloaded from somewhere. Where does it say that any electronic route means you don't have to look out the window? And watch for obstacles? And certainly, no use of routes that I know of allows that data to be used as the sole source of navigation. ActiveCaptain routes certainly will make the user agree with the idea that they need to keep all navigation sources in use and not just their downloaded route.

    Now let's explore the things that shared routes provide that have probably never been thought about. Today it's not very easy to provide your intended course of travel to others. ActiveCaptain currently has a way to optionally publish your current location. Wouldn't an obvious extension be a way to publish your intended route? With manually generated routes, seriously, how many ever provide them to others for safety reasons? The answer is that no one does on any consistent basis.

    Knowing your intended route of travel can provide some incredible benefits while cruising that add safety. Routes from a database like ActiveCaptain can warn you about hazards, Local Notice to Mariners warnings, and other areas of concern that you might not have known about. Routes against our database can provide timing for bridges, optimal fuel purchase assistance, savings at marinas. They can even tell you when friends are in the area along or against your route (we call it the Facebook for adult cruisers application). All of these things together enhance the quality and safety of cruising. The responsibility though doesn't change.

    Finally there's discovery. What I most like about route sharing is the ability to look at experienced captain's personal routes and learn about places where I haven't been. I haven't been to the west coast of Florida and I'm not completely sure how I'd like to go from the Keys. How great it'll be when I can look at a dozen (a hundred?) samples with comments and reviews to determine what makes sense for me. What's the safety increase for me? And how much more will I use my boat because of it?

    Sure, a lot of this information is in guidebooks and travel information and much of the antagonism toward our route sharing comes from the producers of those materials. This happened with marinas and anchorages too. The reason this mechanism will prevail is because ultimately, the crowd wins. Having multiple points of view is better than a single point of view no matter who's giving the single view because that single view can't be everywhere in a world that is changing. This is especially true when the medium (paper) is locked into a static, never-to-change mode.

    Moving to this sharing paradigm removes none of the responsibility of piloting a boat just like adding a remote helm doesn't remove the responsibility for maintaining the system that allows the steering to work. What it does though is add safety and enjoyment. Whether it's ActiveCaptain or something else, it's coming and trying to stop it is about as futile as crying about the lack of sextant skill by today's boaters or complaining about the weather.

  • Thanks, Jeff. Funny, my reply to that email -- not yet finished -- also included a reference to Garmin auto route guidance, which I use a lot. Even though it's capable of alarming miscalculations! Of course it has to be checked -- DUH! (as Charlie says) -- but it's still a time saver, and that time can be used to keep my head out of the boat, fix things, or just enjoy cruising.

    I strongly believe that safety on the water is much more about judgement and awareness than the tools or particular process used. There are many ways to navigate competently, or incompetently, and I simply don't understand why the idea of sharing routes is "shocking". In fact, I agree with you that besides being more useful, because of integration with other info, shared routes also have the potential of be safer.

    It seems to me that crowd sourcing is evolving so that participants can more easily evaluate the results. I'm thinking, for instance, of how Amazon let's user rate reviews so that the better ones go to the top. And I'm noticing how Active Captain profiles are getting richer. Do I gather that individual AC routes will include detailed information on who submitted them, plus the opportunity to rate or review them? Add edits? Will there be other mechanisms to help users evaluate route quality?

    PS Glad to see more detail on AC routing here:

  • > Do I gather that individual AC routes will include detailed
    > information on who submitted them, plus the opportunity
    > to rate or review them?

    You'll be able to see who the owner of the route is and also see all of their other routes. That's very similar to how we implemented reviews now. When you see a review from a captain, you can click on their captain name in the review (it's a link) and send them a message or get a list of all other reviews they've written. A lot of people use that when they find someone who thinks the way they think - they like to see the other places they've gone too.

    The message facility has really grown in use and is tied into this as well. We're finding that the marinas who really have their act together thank users for nice reviews...and apologize when their experience wasn't what it should have been. Users are also writing to one another to get additional information about a particular place. We see that same back channel communication being used with routes too.

    > Add edits?

    Definitely. You can't edit someone else's route though. What you do is copy their route into your set of routes. You're allowed to then change anything that you own. It wouldn't be a good thing if other people were editing your personal set of routes that you would likely depend on later.

    > Will there be other mechanisms to help users evaluate route quality?

    Yes. It's more delicate than marina or anchorage reviews because it's about personal information. There's not really a good model anywhere else. So we'll go slowly and methodically and experiment. We'll have metrics that allow anyone to quickly see which routes are important and which ones are really used. For example, if someone is looking around at all the routes available and then picks one to copy into their own set for their own use, that's a good indication of value for that route. It's sort of like the re-tweet count in Twitter. If you see an article that has been re-tweeted 500 times, there's a good chance it has something worthwhile to say.

    When routes roll out, they will not allow inter-captain sharing at first. We're doing this slowly. We want to evaluate the data each step of the way. We'll allow people to upload their routes and hope to get a very large database of them. This is no different than the rest of ActiveCaptain. When it first came out there were no anchorages. Once we thought we had the right user-interface and capabilities right, we added the next thing. Hazards weren't added until last year (February 2010) - 3+ years after the start. Route sharing won't take that long because it's quite easy but the rating and evaluation mechanisms will likely change over time as we learn what's needed and get feedback.

    I'd be lying if I said I had all the answers. There's some new ground being broken here and it will take observation and experimentation. It also all becomes complex with the third-party navigation support. Remember that sharing routes means sharing among all your devices and navigation products too, not just between users. I think that if you're using a route, the exact same route should be active and working on all of your navigation equipment. That typically hasn't been an easy thing to accomplish.

  • Yeah, the thought of easily passing routes, including some copied from others, across multiple navigation and/or planning platforms is darn exciting. Thanks, Jeff!