Dorsal wants to keep beachgoers safe by allowing users to report on and receive alerts of shark sightings in real time

- November 20, 2015 4 MIN READ

The mercury is set to hit 41 degrees in Sydney today, which means at least half the city has either called in sick at work to go to the beach instead, or wishes they did. As we dive into beach and pool season, a series of familiar news stories will start making their way into the media: swimmers venturing beyond the red and yellow flags and getting caught up in rips, little kids falling into pools, and shark attacks. The mention of each scenario is enough to generate a sense of terror among Australians, but there’s nothing quite as terrifying as a shark attack.

A new app aims to help communities be aware of shark sightings by allowing users to track shark movements and receive alerts in real time. Developed by Allan Bennetto at digital agency Fruitful Tech, Dorsal was created after a recent wave of shark sightings and attacks around the wider Ballina region in NSW.

“It became evident that there was a lot of talk and not much action with a whole heap of conflicting views about what the best way forward was. One of the gaps was in the real time dissemination of info to the wider community. This really hit home when a Tasmanian diver was taken in front of his daughter a day after local fisherman reported a 4.5 White roaming around, yet no warning was put out. I did a bit more research and realised there was nothing really that was absolute real time,” Bennetto said.

That’s the long answer, Bennetto said. “The short answer is I have a 1 year old girl who I wanted to eventually teach to surf and that would be our thing for life, but the missus was not having a bar of it after all of the shark activity, so I created this to appease her. Still not sure the missus is convinced though!”

Dorsal combines public sightings and official warnings to alert users to any shark sightings or reports around Australia. The app captures all notifications from all of the main reporting outlets, which are then pushed out immediately. These alerts detail things like time, location, and the type of shark. The public can also submit sightings through the app, which are then sent to the Dorsal team for verification, and then sent out to users on the app itself, and Dorsal’s Facebook, Twitter, and website. Dorsal is also in talks to push out alerts to third parties.

“There are some really good Facebook pages that are managed by volunteers and they do a great job, but there are still delays in those posts going up and getting out to people. That’s why in addition to the website and the Facebook and Twitter pages, we created the apps. Using the app allows surfers and whoever to set their alerts up to their home break or location and as soon as any report goes live, it is straight to their mobile. No searching for recent reports or waiting for Facebook to push me a notification, it happens instantly,” Bennetto said.

“The other side is I wanted to give people a centralised, national tool to report sightings. At the moment, where and how people report is quite fragmented. I think there are a lot of sightings that go unreported – some deliberately which is fine – and many probably don’t think anything of it. With the Dorsal apps, you see a shark, you can submit a report and notify the wider community in under a minute.”

A user can see a listing of all reports in chronological order on a map view based on their current location. They can then filter these lists down based on location, and can set the app up to push through notifications of reports within a certain distance of their current location or of selected beaches. Since launch, over 170 sightings have been reported, mainly around NSW and WA.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dorsal isn’t the only shark tracking app or service out there. As well as volunteer-led Facebook pages, Surf Life Saving Australia has an app, Beachsafe, which allows users to get information about recent shark sightings, among other key information about different beaches, while Global Shark Tracker is also a popular app. However, this is maintained by a research body that tags and tracks sharks, and this tracking is limited in the sense that a location is only registered when a shark surfaces. 

Still, Bennetto hopes to include tagged sharks in Dorsal’s alerts to provide more comprehensive data, but the Departments of Primary Industries and surf life saving bodies in each state have not yet gotten back to the Dorsal team.

“At the moment it is a manual process. We monitor all the official feeds and will report within minutes of any official report going out…ideally, we would integrate with [official bodies’] systems to enable them to report immediately to the wider community as well as allowing them to be immediately informed to any sightings to act quicker,” Bennetto said. 

“The lack of communication is actually quite frustrating given we have already built the tools, they are free for everyone and they are the quickest way to keep the community informed across any medium.”

Bennetto said what began as a side project for the team has quickly spiralled, costing more than he initially thought it would, but he said that positive feedback from users has made it worth it. He plans to keep the app free, and put in place collaborations with new technology and water devices that will help some money flow through.

He said there are a couple of options in terms of securing funding for further R&D, but Bennetto’s main focus is getting official involvement.

“We are just volunteers who built the system for free. It would be great if it was taken on at a national level and used by the various authorities to keep beachgoer informed in real time. We will continue to push for access and integration to the various other measures being touted, including the tagging programs and CleverBouys as well as continue building out our own innovations with our technology partners,” Bennetto said. 

With Australia’s climate and wildlife seemingly always out to get us, there are a number of other applications for Dorsal. It could be used to track animals such as dingoes, for the reporting and dissemination of alerts about fires, or really, for any situation where community input and real time alerts to the public are required.

Image: Alan Bennetto. Source: Supplied.