Maine Resident Brings Tech to Fishermen, Farmers

A recreational lobster fisher will equip local fishermen and farmers with Internet and software, helping them comply with government regulations.
by | November 1, 2011

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

Several years ago, Maine resident and recreational lobster fisher Susan Corbett received a notification from the state Department of Marine Resources (DMR) requiring that she report her seasonal lobster haul. "I called the DMR and said, 'You didn't really mean to give that to me; I do this just for fun,'" Corbett says, adding that the DMR official said if she didn't fill out the form, she'd lose her license.

So Corbett did her reporting. She filled out paper forms with details such as when she fished, how much time lapsed between fishing trips and how much lobster she caught with her five traps. She determined that if this much work is needed for her few traps each time she fishes, this task must be a burden on commercial fishermen with 800 or so traps -- and on the DMR employees that may be responsible for all that data entry.

Corbett, who also is CEO of a company that sets up rural broadband, set out to change the system. She started working on a project to connect local fishermen to software that will help them comply with these DMR regulations. During her research, Corbett found that it wasn't just fishermen with potential problems filing paperwork. Her friends and colleagues pointed to a similar situation with smaller local wild blueberry farmers who will soon be required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to report where their crops are from and what type of pesticides might have been used.

After a few attempts at getting funding, Corbett applied for and received a $1.4 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant to launch a two-year program to develop user-friendly software that will electronically submit the required forms to the respective agencies.

This project, Corbett says, was one of only about a dozen private-sector companies that received ARRA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grants -- something that doesn't happen often. "When we were going through the due diligence before they awarded us the grant, they asked us why they would give it to us, because they're not going to give them to for-profit companies," Corbett says.

For one thing, agencies weren't taking the lead on this, likely due to lack of funding, says Corbett. Because her company, Axiom Technologies, is leading a partnership that includes nonprofits like the Downeast Institute for Applied Marine Research & Education and the Sunrise County Blueberry Cooperative, to name a few, and because it will benefit the DMR and the USDA, the grant technically is not going to a private corporation. "What is the ideal public-private partnership?" she says. "This is it."

The program kicked off in October 2010 and went live on Jan. 1, 2011 with an announcement calling for 10 farmers and 10 fishermen, geographically spread through the 2,500 square miles of Washington County, Maine. The 20 participants received a laptop computer and are undergoing computer skills training.

The next step in the pilot is developing the criteria for the software. DMR and the USDA are involved with the development process, and consultants from the participating nonprofits are working with the farmers and fishermen to determine what they need or want in the reporting, such as areas to document when they're fishing, temperature, rainfall and GPS coordinates of their traps.

Assuming the reporting system is developed properly, says DMR marine resources scientist Heidi Bray, it could have features that decrease the amount of data-entry errors that can happen electronically, such as inputting the wrong date. "They could craft the system so the electronic reporting catches those mistakes and warns the fishermen to correct the info before they submit it."

If all this goes well, Corbett says the DMR will adopt the software for all its fishermen -- who will be able to input the data and send it to the DMR from the water. Corbett's company has provided broadband and wireless service all over Washington County, so boats can connect from the docks and along the coast, depending on where they are geographically.

Before the end of the year, an RFP will go out for a software writer to create the software, which Corbett says she wants to be user friendly and compatible with multiple devices, like the iPhone, Blackberry, iPad, Android and others. This way, farmers and fishermen can easily record all the necessary information and produce the report, no matter their operating system or platform. "We are looking to roll that product out by the time the farmers and fishermen get back out on the fields," she says. "They will be able to test drive it for the next season, and we can work out the bugs."

As part of a condition of the grant, Axiom will then offer the finalized software free to any farmer or fisherman within Washington County. As for the DMR, Bray says she hopes the software can eventually work with the National Marine Fisheries Service so that fishermen needn't report their data separately to two different places. "It would streamline [the process] if the federal government also accepted this form of electronic reporting -- they send the information into one place and it gets to two different agencies that require it," she says. "The ease of having [fishermen] submit the information is what we're looking for."


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