SOBOS sets new course for boating safety

A new smartphone app called SOBOS — Self-reported On-water Boat Operator Survey — is aimed at changing the face of boating safety by putting data collection in the hands of boaters themselves. Future updates could, in return, provide boaters with real-time information and guidance in a way that has never been seen before.

The SOBOS app collects user reported information about recreational boating practices and habits in order to provide more accurate data about how people use their boats.

The SOBOS app collects user reported information about recreational boating practices and habits in order to provide more accurate data about how people use their boats.

Ernie Marshburn, a professor in East Carolina University’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment and director of the Center for Recreational Boating Research, said most forms of transportation have been studied heavily for the last century or more. But when it comes to research on marine transportation accidents, there’s little literature to be found before 1980.

To add to the problem, most of the literature that is available is based on information and statistics compiled by the U.S. Coast Guard about boating accidents. It doesn’t include information about normal boating behavior for the sake of comparison.

“It’s like going into a prison and trying to understand normal behavior,” Marshburn said, in that the dataset is inherently skewed. “It seemed to me, if that’s all you’re looking at, is you’re chasing the bad actors on the water, and that’s all you’re doing.”

That accident information is important, as it helps agencies like the Coast Guard decide where to deploy resources, but Marshburn felt the data would be far more useful, statistically, if it could be normalized.

“To do that, all you’d have to do is collect non-accident-based boating information that’s comparable to their accident statistics, and then you compare the two,” he said. “So you’re looking at accidents and non-accidents. And that’s the basis of SOBOS.”

SOBOS takes a crowdsourcing approach to collecting information about how people use their boats. Boaters who wish to participate simply download the app, take a short survey, and then use the app to track future boat trips. The app records the date and time, latitude and longitude, speed, and course heading.

“This applies to any boating community, whether it’s human-powered or engine-powered,” Marshburn said. “It’s powerboats, sailboats, kayaks, canoes and jet skis.”

He emphasizes that participation is voluntary and the information collected — both the survey and the trip data — is 100-percent anonymous.

“This is not about tracking you; … I’m trying to create information about recreational boaters,” he said. “To understand what your accident risk is, you have to understand normal. And to study normal, you have to have safe boating behavior, which we’re collecting, and compare it to boating accidents, and it’s that difference that’s important. That’s the critical thing that we’re trying to look at and get at from a measurement standpoint.”

A variety of commercial, governmental and university partners are involved in the effort, including the National Safe Boating Council, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Power Squadrons, National Marine Manufacturers Association and U.S. Sailing. Marshburn said one important use for the new information about boat usage is for updating rules and regulations.

To date, he said, regulators have applied a “one-size-fits-all strategy to all recreational boaters everywhere. The problem with that is that recreational boating in Washington, N.C., is not the same as recreational boating in Tampa Bay. You have to understand what those differences are, and communities are now beginning to do that. You have local ordinances that relate back to their particular needs. So what you could use this for is updating the rules and regulations so that they’re more locally focused.”

But the collection of recreational boating data is only the first step, Marshburn said. “What we’re trying to do is build toward what we can give back.”

Once there is enough data to support it, future updates of the app could provide tools to help boaters operate more safely. Modern electronics such as chartplotters, he said, provide a lot of information but no way to determine what is and isn’t important in a given situation. The SOBOS app could include real-time reports of waterway congestion and hazards such as floating debris, or even a one-touch SOS function.

“What we’re trying to do this year is show proof of concept, but I’m hoping to collect enough information by next year to look at it from that standpoint, which is to build it as a situational awareness tool, and more importantly, to allow you to filter what you’re seeing on the screen.

“What we can do is give you the information to make intelligent decisions about what best to do.”

The SOBOS app is available for Android and iOS. For more information or to download, visit

“It’s for all boaters,” Marshburn said. “What we’re asking for is help.”