Ships and Tools

by Sally Applin

If you are collecting data, what are you doing with it?

What does it tell you?

How do you use it?

Does your data save money, resources, time, and/or lives?

Does it contribute to innovation?

This is the story of clipper ships, the Navy and Matthew Maury, a man who by thinking differently about data, managed to create innovative tools that forever changed the shipping industry and in turn, the global economy.

On Saturday, I received a surprise gift in the mail: The Race,a book on non-stop global circumnavigation high-speed yacht racing.

The Race starts out at a fast pace, complete with rogue ice and giant waves. Its thrilling right from the start.

Then, it abruptly shifts, to the history of ocean crossings. Specifically, the history of technological improvements that enabled faster and faster ocean crossings.

In the mid-nineteenth century, global trade between China, England, Australia and the United States was exploding. Clipper ships represented the pinnacle of transportation technology of the time. Tea, employment, travel, commodities and all else were in demand. It was up to the clippers to safely and swiftly deliver the goods.

Prior to the clipper, ships were twice as slow. It could take four or five months for a transport ship to complete a 15,500 mile voyage. The clipper could complete that voyage in 74 days, or roughly half the time.

With their speed, the technologically superior clipper ships drove commerce. The only way for the clippers to gain speed on their journeys, was for the captains and crew to press the ships to perform as fast as they were capable by pushing the technology as far as it could go (e.g.full sails at all times and less rest for the crew to keep going 24/7.).

(Sound familiar?)

This provided for incremental increases, but did not provide any real innovation for dramatic improvements until the sailor Matthew Maury figured out a new way to analyze and synthesize naval data.

According to The Race:

In 1839 a Navy man, Matthew Maury broke his leg. While he convalesced, Maury managed to write under a pseudonym, a series of articles criticizing the Navy’s position on various controversial topics. Unfortunately, the articles irritated the Navy’s higher ranks.

When his identity was revealed, the Navy appointed Maury to the Depot of Charts and Instruments, the archive that contained all of the Navy’s warship logs and navigational instruments.

The logs contained daily, and sometimes hourly reports of ships’ tracks and locations as well as observations about winds, currents, and other ocean phenomena.”

No one had used this data.

It had sat there.

For years.

In fact, the book goes on to say that they almost sold the archive logs for scrap paper. But they didn’t. They Navy kept them and when Maury was in charge:

Maury realized the value of the logs and quickly he, and his staff, first collated the logs by area and then converted them into pictorial representations of the currents, average wind speeds, and wind directions experienced by U.S. Navy ships over the routes they had sailed since the service’s inception.

Maury assembled these pictorial representations into easily readable charts, using arrows of various sizes to depict average wind speeds, strengths, and directions of specific locations during different seasons of the year.

Maury’s first Wind and Current Charts were produced in 1847. They were accompanied by an explanation and analysis that came to be called Sailing Directions.

At first Sailing Directions was only offered to US Navy ships, but a few commercial captains began to request copies–one being Captain Jackson, of the W.H.D.C. Wright, who used Sailing Directions for a trip from Baltimore to Rio de Janeiro in 1848. Jackson returned more than a month ahead of schedule.

Word of his journey spread and the first edition print of Sailing Directions was for 5,000 copies. They were given away, and the recipients were asked to complete an abstract log that Maura had designed. (Maury wisely used the new logs to reincorporate data into future versions.)

The most stunning statistic from The Race:

by 1854 Maury’s Sailing Directions was saving American Ships $2.5 million a year and the global fleets perhaps more than $10 million a year.

Maury’s story is a terrific example of great data interpretation, innovation and application.

Sailing Directions not only provided captains with a better user interface of the ocean–it also changed the way they thought about navigation. It enabled them to learn from the logs and patterns of others before them, to not repeat dangerous and costly navigation mistakes.

Maury and his team had to filter piles and piles of data–coding, sorting, mapping, and analyzing it, to come up with the meaningful data, that created the guide. If Maury hadn’t been a sailor himself, he might not have known to value the data, or the contexts in which it would be helpful.

The Naval data was disregarded for years because no one was able, or wanted to, or thought of how to interpret it in a meaningful way. The Navy dutifully collected the data and then abandoned it to their archives.

In my opinion, data isn’t worth much to collect, unless something meaningful and useful can be done with it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for data collection, but I’m opposed to data stagnation.

Trend: We’ve got some great data that is likely just as buried as the Navy’s. How can we think differently about data analysis?

©2009-2014 Sally A. Applin. All rights reserved.

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