DATA.BASE partner sets course to improve accuracy of shipping routes


We’ve all had that near-miss car accident. You slam on the brakes to avoid a pedestrian. You swerve into the next lane as a car suddenly brakes. You run a yellow light that turns red a little too quickly.

And your heart pounds at the thought of what could have happened.

Colin Robertson, Sean Doherty and Steven Roberts know those near-misses also happen out in the ocean, often unseen or unrecorded. Major boating accidents don’t happen often, but when they do they can be devastating.

Working with Communitech DATA.BASE, the Wilfrid Laurier University researchers in the Department of Geography and Environmental have partnered with exactEarth and Global Spatial Technology Solutions Inc. (GSTS) to develop a data set of ship trajectories and identify anomalies in shipping data in real time.

DATA.BASE is working with industry and academic partners to make products out of the “big data” that satellites gather daily while tracking daily movements on Earth.

The problem, as Robertson explains, is that some data, like ship trajectories, don’t always follow their prescribed paths. Current global shipping network information isn’t always accurate.

“There are apparently some gaps. People haven’t been looking if ships are actually going where they say they are going,” said Roberts.

Roberts cites some shipping lanes that geographically lead across land as an example. Some vessels are off-course for more nefarious reasons, such as piracy, illegal fishing, and boating in protected areas, while others simply may be in distress.

Robertson and his team will develop a data set of ship trajectories using public data and satellite information. Working with data already gathered, the team hopes to create an algorithm that will help generate more accurate paths, and then work on identifying anomalies or unusual activities.

exactEarth and GSTS can apply the global shipping data set and resulting algorithms to their live data.

“With our industry partners, we obviously want to create something they are going to use, you know? And that’s always exciting. We aren’t always pushed that way,” Doherty said of the challenge.

The team of academics, working in a short five-month timeline, are being practical about what they hope to achieve, and are already looking forward to applying for further funding through DATA.BASE.

However, the team is anxious to dig deep into the project and try to track near-misses in the shipping industry.

Doherty likens their research to watching major intersections for accidents. An observer will rarely see accidents, but when they do they can be devastating.

However, an observer sees many near-misses daily, which can be studied to figure out what is at fault: a pedestrian pathway, unclear lane markings, or a too-short yellow light. Studying near-misses helps prevent accidents.

In the end, that’s what Robertson, Doherty and Roberts are excited to do: not just conduct research in their labs, but affect outcomes for people, products and the environment through their manipulation of data.

“It’s not every day we create something that directly ties to maybe saving lives or a whole pile of money or an environmental disaster,” Doherty said. “And there’s potential in this project that we’ll create something like that. I would love that to happen.”

The first step, the researchers stress, is ensuring that the industry has the best, clean data they can offer. Robertson and his team believe their work will hand big companies a clearer perspective on the big data of the shipping industry.

“I think there are all sorts of applications to the oceans,” said Robertson. “It’s kind of like the last great unknown, so having this data is kind of a first lens and view into that arena.”

Kayleigh Platz About Kayleigh Platz

Kayleigh Platz is a storyteller and researcher for Communitech. Born, raised and schooled in Waterloo Region, she holds two degrees from the University of Waterloo and is interested in new media, social networks and cyber-culture.

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