Open Source Platforms for Maritime Data

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The idea of a commonly held asset among major players in a very competitive industry is nothing new. Well before the days of the internet, the automotive industry shared an engine patent at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Unlike today, the few companies that held that engine patent used their partnership to push out competitors.

In modern open source arrangements the intellectual property is available to anyone interested in using the product.

The actual license terms are quite variable. One type of license allows modification of a product for other uses as long as the new design is also shared freely with the same license terms attached.

Electronics hobbyists will recognized this as the model of the Open Hardware Movement. This is the license used for the Arduino and other similar micocontroller development boards.

Open source boat instruments will eventually find their place and some interesting projects have already been published. It will take plenty of development before regulators and insurers will accept these often home brew devices on recreational vessels. The same minds that find a need to make better instruments and sensors for small projects can also use that expertise to solve larger problems for commercial customers.

Commercial implementation of mature open source technology seems to be a long way off for some sectors while others are already seeing benefits. Fisheries managers around the world struggle under a data load that will only get worse as restrictions on fishing increase, but one company has deployed a mobile app called Digital Deck to ease reporting and data management tasks for fishermen and regulators.

Fishing disputes can't all be solved using open data platforms and easier catch reporting for fishermen. Better accountability of fishermen operating off the Coast of Somalia could have led to an intervention and protection of Somali fishing waters, and maybe less of a reason to be hijacking ships more than twenty years later.

Tim Welsh, Strategist at Point 97, where they produce the Digital Deck fisheries management product and a variety of data portals for regulators and governments, sees many positive reasons for open source data platforms.

"When restrictions are removed, innovation and change happens faster.  Using open source software gives us the freedom to adapt our products to suit our needs, and in turn we extend that freedom to clients and to those who find a way to use our software in ways we never expected."

The simplicity and accuracy of that statement turns the traditional product development and feedback cycle upside down. In a limited marketplace the installation of each product needs to provide some value in feedback. Previously, assessment of a technology in detail would lead to cease and desist letters. If we can loosen the grip of this mentality there is the potential for rapid development and growth.

Mr Welsh is clearly excited by the potential of shared technology as Point 97 helps users cooperate in order to manage shared coastal resources around the world.

"Open source software is a melting pot for innovative ideas.  It's where code is openly shared and the best ideas quickly emerge in rapid succession.  It allows us to take the best ideas out there and remix them without restriction to meet the specific needs of our customers.  In turn we share many of our contributions back to the world to benefit from and build on them in ways we never expected."

As we see in the smaller open source hobbyist community, there are some very innovative and inventive people using their energy to solve problems in the maritime domain. The community at OpenRov has solved countless problems with their design through the stimulation of new ideas brought by new members.

If the maritime industry needs anything it needs "the best ideas [to] quickly emerge in rapid succession". There really isn't a more accurate remedy to reduce stagnation in all sectors and at all scales. We don't need to daydream about what could be if all technology was accessible and all regulators were accepting. We have hugely successful examples of open source data management on the fringes of the mainstream right now.

Restrictions will still be in place due to uncontrollable factors but the temptation of beating the competition to a new technology or method is just too great to be ignored in a industry that has run on introspective quantification for centuries. In the past no marginal gain was too small to be forgotten and bids are still lost for pennies per tonne today.

Those organizations that don't immerse themselves in the open flow of technology and data sharing will quickly find themselves outsiders losing bids by pennies. They will survive but become irrelevant as users migrate to a rich and open data platform that parallels our desire for easily consumable, recent information and a better profit margin.
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