SOBOS app 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.

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 literature on boating safety is based primarily on reported accidents, and there’s a lack of data about normal boating behavior.

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. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

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.”

The information collected — both the survey and the trip data — is 100-percent anonymous.

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 be more localized, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.

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.

“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,” Marshburn said. “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.”

SOBOS info card

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