Contributed by Debra McGhan
A few years ago, Brint Markle, a graduate student attending MIT and a lifelong outdoor adventurer, had a vision to launch a project that would make access to mountain travel information readily accessible for everyone.
“I’m an avid skier and self proclaimed snow geek,” said Markle. “I’ve been all over the world skiing and playing in the snow, from Alaska to Switzerland. I’m Level III-certified, and I’ve seen a lot of varied conditions and hazards. I wanted to be able to share what I was seeing out in the mountains with other people, not have it be lost in a notebook somewhere.”
Partnering with fellow MIT alum, Jim Christian, a graduate technology engineering student, the two founded Avatech to gather objective information about the snowpack and share it with others.
“The original idea was to build the first proactive avalanche preventative technology tool, which we called the SP1 Avatech probe. The SP1 used a variety of optical and force sensing technologies to quickly gather structural data about the snowpack in a fraction of the time of digging a full snowpit. Combined with existing knowledge about the snowpack, information from the SP1 would help inform backcountry travelers of weak layers and changes in structure on various elevations and aspects.”
“Soon, snow professionals started asking us to create a network to help share this information with one another, so that’s exactly what we did. We called the platform, Avanet, and enabled snow professionals to share data from the probes, as well as snowpits, snow conditions and avalanche observations,” explained Markle. “The idea was to aggregate information for the benefit or good of the community, so we could all learn from the collective wisdom of everyone in the backcountry.”
“People started telling us what we had was great, but when spring and summer came, no one was using the platform. Some of our professional partners asked, ‘Why can’t we use this in the summer for guiding, biking, rafting and hiking activities? Can we share information with our clients and the general public?’ That really made sense to us,” said Markle. “So that’s when Mountain Hub was born.”
Unlike Avanet, which was originally only available by subscription to professionals, Mountain Hub is a free app available to everyone. The challenge now is to get enough people using it to really make it a data-rich source of information. They are certainly on the right track. Today, Mountain Hub has more than 30,000 users from 40 countries around the world and a digital audience of 95,000, including their social channels.
“The goal has been to make this fun and easy for anyone, plus include some really exciting features. Now our community can share helpful information for all seasons, track their route and even show their friends a 3D flyover of where they went.”
Markle said the next step for Mountain Hub will be to start pulling information from sources like local avalanche centers. “To date, all the information on Mountain Hub is user-generated. We’ve been a solely community-generated push system where we share information others have pushed to our site, but we recognize this just isn’t enough. We also need to be pulling information in, so that we become an aggregator of information. This is really a true, robust, data-rich platform. To do that, we are partnering with companies and organizations like the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.”
Markle said that they have had great success with this approach in places like Andorra, Spain and in the Pyrenees Mountains.
“The mountain guides and general public there have embraced Mountain Hub and everyone is using it, so there is so much current information in that region. It’s amazing.”
Places in the US are also seeing this trend in high-use population areas, such as Park City, Utah and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. “What we see is that when people are posting every day, keeping the information fresh and current, more people use the platform. It’s a nice snowball effect.”
“Our goal within 10 years is to become the go-to platform to share and find information for everyone,” said Markle. “We’d like to see Mountain Hub become your digital guidebook, so you can have a safer experience when you’re out adventuring anywhere in the world at any time of the year. You can also expect to see Mountain Hub become more customized in the future, allowing users to tailor their experience to their favorite activities.”
Also watch for coming contests that will allow you to post your observations for a chance to win sponsor gifted prizes from companies like Black Diamond.
You can access Mountain Hub at www.AlaskaSnow.org under “Observations”, or learn more at wwwMountainHub.com. The app is available as a free download on the Apple and Google Play stores and is available on the web at www.app.mountainhub.