FrontM is set to launch a new app that will bridge the gap between seafarers, their loved ones, and vital welfare support services with the ultimate goal of helping seafarers find relief from feelings of isolation and loneliness. Digital Ship spoke with FrontM and the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) to find out how the app will mitigate seafarer wellness issues by facilitating seamless onboard connectivity.
Seafarers today are faced with expensive and intermittent onboard connectivity that hinders their ability to stay in touch with friends and family, keep up to date with current affairs, and easily access welfare services and support. As a result, feelings of isolation, disconnection and loneliness are rife and with the global pandemic disrupting crew changes and repatriation, these feelings are only being exacerbated. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has referred to the outbreak of COVID-19 as a ‘humanitarian crisis’, which has further highlighted the physical and mental health challenges seafarers face as a result of extended periods spent onboard vessels.
Speaking with Digital Ship, Lisa Moore, VP commercial product management at FrontM, the company behind an edge AI software platform to drive digital experiences for the maritime and aviation industries, confirmed to us that over a third of seafarers (650,000) do not have access to connectivity at all. Where they do have connectivity, they are often competing against restricted bandwidth, while pay-as-you-use is simply poor value for money. Voice and video calls are data intensive and costly, with FrontM research finding that on average seafarers spend US $101 every month on crew communications. The upkeep is too expensive for most. Not only does this make it near impossible for seafarers to stay connected to friends and family, but it means that they cannot access welfare services offered by organisations such as the International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN). Ultimately, this leads to significant mental health challenges and high suicide rates. According to FrontM data, 5.9 per cent of seafarer suicides are due to fatigue, isolation and lack of contact with family and friends.
According to Caitlin Vaughan, project manager at ISWAN, “Access to good communications should be a basic human right.” ISWAN believes that it is imperative for seafarers to be able to contact home and access welfare services at sea or wherever they are. “We need to know that they can access our helpline and resources as easily as possible. Seafarers contact us for a variety of reasons including for emotional support, practical assistance and to find out t where their nearest port welfare centre is, which is especially important now with COVID as normal time onboard is being extended.” Without good connectivity, making a quick phone call or finding out a simple piece of information is near impossible.
Moreover, good connectivity can help build strong relationships between crew onboard. While some have voiced concerns around onboard connectivity and its potential to drive social segregation, Ms Vaughan assured us that, “It’s more likely that good connectivity facilitates better crew cohesion. It reduces the stress of worrying about what’s going on at home and it aids in more conversation between the crew as they can discuss things going on at home and events happening with their families.”
Onship: the seafarer's trusty companion
Realising that “there wasn’t a single solution that could offer a thrusted and conversed digital touch point to help address these issues,” Miss Moore explained that FrontM saw a gap in the market to create a service that would provide seafarers with a way to seamlessly search and access various services, without significant data consumption, which is often the result of searching across multiple platforms.
“There are solutions like Facebook, Skype, Messenger, but these are quite data hungry and seafarers’ allocated data budgets don’t go far. We wanted to develop a holistic approach to provide seafarers with a trusted companion that no matter where they are, whether it's onboard a vessel, in port, onshore or at home, they can access the services that they need to stay connected and therefore healthy and happy at sea.”
This realisation inspired FrontM to develop a super app called Onship, also known as ‘the seafarer’s trusty companion’. Onship works over any existing vessel satellite connectivity system, ensuring crew's connectivity budgets go further. Access to Onship is completely free, requires no background data usage and calls to any number including satellite cost 50 per cent less than the typical rate seafarers are paying today. The solution is underpinned by core communication capabilities such as instant voice messaging, group chat, custom news feeds (via Robbie the Virtual Reporter – see more below), video conferencing, health management and on demand healthcare services. “We aim to become a one stop shop so seafarers don’t have to navigate all the data across various platforms to access what they need to,” Miss Moore explained. “They’ll have one platform that they can use to speak to family members, to surf the web, to get support from ISWAN 24/7, all via the click of a single button.”
One of the most notable benefits of Onship is its ability to connect seafarers with ISWAN’s wellbeing support services and its Seafarers Directory, which lists wellbeing centre locations. “We wanted to raise awareness of the support that exists through our organisation and to give seafarers easier access to these tools,” Ms Vaughan noted. While it is possible for seafarers to access ISWAN support through centralised services provided by employers, often this doesn’t permit much privacy. “They often have to go into a communal area and therefore can’t always speak freely to friends, family or support staff,” Miss Moore explained. With the stigma around mental health, accessing confidential support is paramount to seafarer wellbeing. “It can be very difficult to reach out and ask for help while feeling isolated onboard so it is crucial for seafarers to be aware of the confidential support they can receive from ISWAN,” Ms Vaughan explained.
ISWAN was chosen as one of the first organisations to join Onship due to positive feedback from seafarers about the services provided. “Research showed us that seafarers feel positive about ISWAN and what they are doing in the industry today. It was important for us to give ISWAN a channel and help them expand their footprint too,” Miss Moore said. Adding to this, Ms Vaughan said, “We’re a small team so we need to be visible to help seafarers get the help they need. I think in general knowledge and awareness of the support that exists for seafarers might be more limited than we expect.”
Miss Moore confirmed that as development on the app continues, FrontM will look at additional partnerships with other welfare organisations and charities to integrate with Onship. “We will also continue to shape applications with feedback from ISWAN and experts,” Miss Moore confirmed.
A closer look at Onship
As well as connecting users with ISWAN, Onship enables seafarers to use services they would have access to onshore.
One feature is Robbie the Virtual Reporter that allows seafarers to access news and information on topics they are interested in, enabling them to stay afloat with current affairs. “The user can set up notifications to push the data through to them whenever they want it. If a shipping company were to deploy Onship to their entire fleet and entire workforce then we could install edge software which would then enable data like this to be cached locally for seafarers to access as and when required offline. The information is also stored on the device for access at any time,” Miss Moore explained.
Another feature is HealthMariner, an on-demand healthcare service that enables seafarers to access medical advice from FrontM’s healthcare partner, VIKAND. Basic consultation to alleviate healthcare problems is provided via a nominal fee. Miss Moore confirmed that FrontM and VIKAND are working together to build a telemedicine service as part of Onship.
Seafarers can also access the innovative feature Snappie, which provides them with the ability to send friends and family members memories via personalised travel postcards and merchandise.
Images and location data can be sent to loved ones to help them share their experiences at sea, and enable those at home to see what life is like for their loved one at any time.
Onship also enables crew to communicate with one another over the local area network, requiring no data consumption, to warn other members about crew ailments or troubles. “They could set up a group on the app and use this to communicate risks or issues to increase awareness and help mitigate problems,” explained Miss Moore.
Onship is a mobile-first application but is available for download across any and multiple devices. Many platforms are hosted on the satellite connectivity hardware, whereas Onship is a pure software solution, meaning it can be used on any, providing greater choice to seafarers.
Above: Robbie the Virtual Reporter enables seafarers to access news and other information to help them keep up to date with global affairs
An app not just for the seafarer
Seafarers’ families also experience feelings of loneliness and anxiety as a direct result of not being able to communicate with their loved ones at sea. Onship has been designed to provide those onshore with peace of mind that their loved ones are safe and happy. “It is vital to bridge the gap between the families and so important for them to never feel alone. This is why we created the app, not just for the seafarer but their families too,” said Miss Moore. “We hear from a lot of loved ones about their concerns, so if this platform can offer a more straightforward solution for families to keep in touch, then that’s very important,” added Ms Vaughan.
Preparing for launch and ongoing plans
For the last year, Onship has been through a range of tests and trials, with seafarer and existing partner feedback used to adjust and improve the service prior to launch. According to Miss Moore, FrontM has built up many strong relationships with seafarers with a number of them waiting to download the app as soon as it becomes available.
As bandwidth availability increases, Ms Vaughan and Miss Moore both confirmed that their organisations will be working with others and alongside satellite providers to further drive down costs and make connectivity more affordable. Both companies will also be raising awareness around the importance of connectivity for maritime workers.
“We really hope that this project helps every single shipping company to think about the services they provide to their crew. We are hopeful that they will take a step back and realise that communication is a basic human need and see the importance of this. A simple ‘hello, how are you doing today?’ is the difference between a seafarer getting up and feeling invigorated or going through the day feeling isolated, lost and anxious. I hope this app makes companies take stock and want to do more to help seafarers,” Miss Moore noted.
Seafarers responding to the new app said:
“Sometimes even the most basic things are tricky when you’re at sea. E.g.Letting the wife easily find out what time it is where I am, so she knows if I am working or free for a chat. Onship is fixing so many of these comms issues. Well done and thank you to the Onship team” - Sumay, First Officer.
“We presently have a cap of 300MB if not on 4G coverage. But there is unlimited use on our ships’ computers. But that is not that private and to be honest it is difficult to have a personal chat about family and health matters. Messaging, VoIP and video calls are high on data use. I’m glad the Onship app can help fix this and if my children can call me on it that is even better” - Jackson, Ordinary Seaman.”