Duluth software firm develops updated ship tracker

DULUTH-As long as there have been ships there has been a curiosity for shipping news."The No. 1 question we receive is, 'When is the next boat?'" said Denise Wolvin, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Canal Park.To help the ...
Adam Schwartz-Lowe, senior software engineer for Saturn Systems, demonstrates the HarborLookout ship tracking site. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service

DULUTH-As long as there have been ships there has been a curiosity for shipping news.

"The No. 1 question we receive is, 'When is the next boat?'" said Denise Wolvin, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center in Canal Park.

To help the museum answer that question, a Duluth-based software engineering firm stepped up to create a new version of a longtime favorite tool for shipping enthusiasts: the shipping tracker.

Called Harbor Lookout (harborlookout.com), the new Twin Ports shipping locator offers some of the best arrival and departure times of its kind. Tourists can schedule their day around a boat arrival through the canal or residents of Park Point and beachgoers can schedule their lives around a raising of the Aerial Lift Bridge.

Last week, Adam Schwartz-Lowe of Saturn Systems sat in a swivel chair below a big split screen to show reporters a virtual tour of Harbor Lookout. Half locator map of Lake Superior and half arrival/departure board, the new site details shipping traffic in the Duluth-Superior harbor in an elegant way-with few clicks and lots of nice-to-know information.

Somewhere outside the Saturn Systems boardroom window was an antenna which collected signals from a radius stretching 50 miles out onto the water. Ships all the way from Two Harbors, Minn., and Silver Bay, Minn., registered on both the map and information board.

"We're getting real-time data from the ships themselves," said Schwartz-Lowe, a senior software engineer for the 28-year-old company located in downtown Duluth, where Saturn Systems takes up several floors in the Torrey Building with its staff of 70-75 people.

Three years in the making, the Harbor Lookout web application made its debut this month both online and at the visitor center, where it is showcased on the free museum's overhead monitors, including at the second-floor window bank overlooking the lake.

Once it was functionally completed, Saturn Systems donated the Harbor Lookout application to the museum. The software engineering firm maintains ownership and is in charge of hosting and administering the website.

"I was amazed a company would want to donate something they put a lot of time into," Wolvin said. "We're very grateful."

In addition to gathering more accurate estimated times of arrival and departure, the site shares cargo details when it learns them from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the museum and has access to manifests and other shipping data. Saturn Systems turned to the Army Corps during development. They wanted a partner with access.

"We have a lot of docks and agents voluntarily share information with us, and that's how we determine a schedule a couple days out," said Wolvin, describing how the Army Corps shares a condensed version of its vast data to be viewed by the everyday person.

"We don't always know the cargos; some of it's proprietary information," said Michelle Laurion, a spokeswoman for Saturn Systems, who described the software firm's history in Duluth. She admitted it was unique for a software engineering firm to be found in the Midwest, but said the company takes advantage of the high number of computer science graduates churned out by Twin Ports colleges.

"Over 20 people had their hands in making this," said Schwartz-Lowe, who explained the firm used the application as a training and development tool. It's the first time they've seen one of their training exercises reach the public market, and they're more than excited to continue to refine the product. While there is a web-based version for smartphones, Saturn Systems would like to add a smartphone app for Android phones sometime in the future, Schwartz-Lowe said.

The look of the site is simple, featuring inviting colors and an understated lighthouse logo. The site does away with the 24-hour clock used by previous iterations of Twin Ports ship tracking sites. Instead, it includes the more common AM and PM references for time. As of Monday, May 29, there were eight arrivals scheduled for Duluth and Superior, Wis., this week-most of the freighters carrying coal.

Also Monday, the map showed the Reggeborg at anchor outside the canal. The foreign ship spent the Memorial Day holiday both surrounded by sail boats and glowing as a green arrow on the Harbor Lookout website.

The "notes" links on Harbor Lookout proved insightful in practice, indicating that the Norwegian-flagged Reggeborg was waiting at anchor for a load of grain, which was scheduled to arrive at the CHS dock in Superior later in the day.

Unlike the global-automated identification systems also found on the internet, Harbor Lookout only begins to visually track ships on a map that are within two hours of the local harbors. Bigger sites allow users to track ships all over the world.

Those involved want users to think of the regional offering as another tool for ship watching.

"Seeing a boat is always the highlight of why people come here," Wolvin said. "If we can provide a decent schedule, then they can come enjoy seeing America at work."