History of ExplorOz & Membership Services

Friday, Mar 01, 2013 at 14:41


The Wayback Machine (a digital archive library of internet sites) logs its first capture of ExplorOz.com on 23rd August, 2000. At that time, the site consisted of Trek Notes, Regional Articles, Trip Planning Articles, Travelogues, and Practical Camping Tips, Track Conditions, Fuel Prices, Shop, & Trader (now called Classifieds). No Forum!

Here’s a snapshot of the opening message on the Home Page as it was in early 2000.

Looking at this, you can see that our business has stayed on track with its original aim and intentions. That's something we are both surprised and proud of!

The concept for a Forum didn't take long - in fact I clearly remember it. It was October 2000 and David and I were about to welcome our first-born child into the world. I had spent my pregnancy publishing all the Trek Notes & Region Articles, to the site (having penned most of these earlier for the never-published book after our 2-year trip around Australia in the late 1990s). We had two part-time staff – Linda (shop admin) and Glenn (Marketing & Advertising Sales) to support us during our busy new parenting/new business period, and it was Glenn who championed the Forum. Glenn was very insightful and we watched him work his magic with many companies he consulted to over the years. Some people are brilliant assets if you have the resources to give them wings... but oh what a headache he gave David with that idea!! LOL

By 2001, we had also started the Members Loyalty Rewards with a 12 month Membership costing $30. Till this point, the site was funded by our own back pocket and the idea of Membership was to offer a second stream of site services on a user-pays basis. We had already received a huge amount of emails with words of support and encouragement for the site concept and lots of ideas and suggestions for what people wanted to see added to the site. It was very encouraging but it was going to take a lot of work to get there and we soon realised that we couldn't offer these as free services. Our mission however was always to ensure that the content on the site could be accessed freely and that only the enhanced services in specific areas would be covered as Member-only access. This meant that people had a choice when using the site - if they saw a need for what was offered by our Membership then they could pay to subscribe, if not they were welcome to join the site as a "Visitor".

It didn’t take long for the support from site users to start making an impact with people eagerly joining up as Members, & enjoying the convenience of buying difficult to find permits, maps and books online. What surprised us the most was some people telling us that they joined as Members as a way to say thanks! That to contribute financially whether they used or needed the
areas we reserved for "Members" was not the point for them. The support from the public was overwhelming and although we weren't making more than we were spending, it was encouraging and gave us the motivation to find a way to give people what they wanted (without going broke in the meantime).

Very soon a few switched on businesses also gave internet advertising a go in our Business Supplier Directory and we were thrilled to get support from a group of equipment manufacturers for a Vehicle Setup project - a 3 month project to modify a Landcruiser to bring it up to spec for use as an outback field research vehicle. As each stage of the modification or fitment was done, we published articles and photos to show the stages of the setup.

Some of our field work was commissioned by Hema, but all of it was used for the site trek notes. Although we'd already done 2 years travelling around and within Australia throughout 1998-2000, there were still large chunks of desert in WA to explore and share and our new home in Perth was the ideal base for that. By 2003 we had the most-well travelled baby in Australia - who had been across full Gunbarrel Hwy (including the old section), the Tanami, Kimberley (including Purnululu, Mitchell Falls and Kalumbaru), Gibb River Road, the Anne Beadell Hwy, a double crossing of the Simpson Desert (including French Line, Inside Track & Rig Road), and a unique trip through the Pitjantjatjara Lands, a visit to Surveyor Generals Corner, the Great Central Rd, & the Canning Stock Route! We then had another baby and the kids came on more excursions including Tasmania and the Ningaloo coast. All the while, these trips were documented to share tips and GPS waypoints recorded on OziExplorer for every damn intersection (and photographed), P-bay camps, bush camps we used, and tracks we travelled etc. The data collection and publication was huge and we knew we weren't the only ones of course doing this, but we wanted a way to help people share their data with others to help plan future trips using internet research.

Around 2005, GPS and mobile phone technology was really starting to change and Google maps was first launched. On the back of this ExplorOz launched iMapPlot – our own proprietary mapping engine, and PointPlace - a sharing platform for travellers to view/upload/download GPS track files. A feature of Membership was free PointPlace credits to use the system, although visitors could purchase these if desired.

In 2006, the system was superseded by a far superior system called Places. Places began much as it is now, as an online waypoint database (using GeoScience Australia POI data) with additional proprietary data layers customised to suit the needs of travellers. The most unique feature of Places was the online 250K topo maps – and the ability to browse, select and even download (Members only) other travellers shared GPS track files.

In 2008 Google maps was integrated into our mapping engine to add the street mapping, hybrid and satellite data layers. Through the contributions of many of our Members and efforts of our Volunteer Place Administrators, the popularity of this part of the site has grown to be second only to the Forum. Reviews for campsites, locations, and POIs occur daily, as do photo submissions. Travellers can even send updates to Places from location via their smartphones (with photos, comments etc).

In 2008, ExplorOz Members were also treated to a totally new service – Blogs. Blogs is the ideal solution for people looking for free hosting of their travel journals. Whereas previously, only we could publish our trip stories to the site, now so could everyone else (Members only). The key is that when you write a blog it is not locked away behind some restricted subscription (like other blog sites) and is visible to an instant audience for your stories. Blogs has been the biggest advancement to the site since the Forum because it is where people contribute and publish their experiences, journeys, ideas, videos, and of course photos. The blogs tie in nicely with your MyMap, EOTrackMe and Place updates, so a Member’s profile page can be an inspirational and informative page for concerned family & friends to refer to whilst you are away from home.
Blogs are so popular in fact, that many Businesses operators have joined ExplorOz purely for the chance to utilise the unlimited Blog service included in the base annual Business Membership fee of just $200. Blogs allows anyone the chance to post on ExplorOz what would otherwise be considered “off topic” in the Forum, and it also serves to satisfy the self-promotion desires of brands and businesses that want to be on ExplorOz.

The whole period between 2006 - 2008 was a massive year of change for ExplorOz, as it was with consumer internet use, mobile phone technology and society's interest generally in technology products, such as digital cameras, interest in online photo storage and sharing etc. During this time the Forum was alive with all sorts of vibrant discussions and debates about choices and a strong feeling of mateship started to become apparent amongst the regular online community. A few colourful characters emerged and some were loved, others not so! But all in all, the site was bringing people and changing people's lives. We heard of many face-to-face gatherings, and offers of accommodation to travellers and groups of people bonding in person through their shared ExplorOz connection and interests. There was even a wedding! At some point, the Members requested a service to help coordinate convoy groups to do trips together - and this is how the Members Trips & Gatherings section started.

There have been hundreds of convoys, trips and gatherings coordinated online through this Member section and in 2007 we had the first ExplorOz "National Gathering". There have been 5 National Gatherings organised by the Members. The first was held at Warraweena in the Flinders Ranges in 2007 and was organised by Willem. The following year the gathering was held at Innamincka and organised by Kev. In 2009 it was held in St George (and again organised by Kev). In 2010 we celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the website at the National Gathering in Wiluna (organised by David and Michelle) and in 2011 it was Silverton (organised by Dave B). 2012 didn't see a "National Gathering" take place and so far no such event has been listed for 2013. All these events took a lot of effort and preparation by the organisers who were simply passionate Members wanting to put the event together as an opportunity to meet up and share good times with like-minded people.

Throughout the period 2006 - 2010 we worked with numerous entrepreneurs looking at satellite tracking and online mapping. Everyone wanted to find ways to tackle the big black hole in Australia's telecommunications mobile phone networks. When the CDMA network was shut off in Australia in 2008 to make way for 3G services, things really started to change for data users and travellers.

David had worked with SatTrak24 to advise development directions to bring an affordable satellite tracking and messaging system to the everyday traveller who wanted an affordable service for safety and peace of mind when heading into remote territories. One of the big issues that SatTrak24 had identified was the lack of topo 250 data of outback areas available in vector form and on the internet. He consulted with David to develop iMapPlot for the SatTrak24 mapping engine, and jointly we were able to bring this technology to the ExplorOz site and in doing so we provided the first online 250K mapping solution that didn't use raster maps (ie. didn't get blurry when you zoomed in but rather, showed more detail). All those GPS track files we had recorded now had a place to be shown, shared and downloaded too. Finally, things started to fall into place as technology evolved. Tragically, the owner of SatTrak24 was diagnosed with terminal cancer right at the pinnacle moment of his bringing his 4 year project to market. Before we knew it, Spot hit the market running!

One of the early limitations noticed by users of Spot was the poor quality of the base mapping used in their subscriber tracking pages. The location points are only given for each logged position but lacks connecting lines to show the path moved between points. Working with this data, in 2010 David developed a system uniquely for ExplorOz Members called EOTrackMe.

EOTrackMe is an online tracking service that utilises your existing GPS device provided it can send a signal to our webserver (via your phone network, Spot satellite service, or 3G internet connection). The service uses the iMapPlot mapping engine with zoomable topo maps, and connects the dots between your position logs. If your position data is being sent via your mobile phone network, the data tracking is smooth and route lines can be accurate to the metre or minute! But if your data is being sent by the Spot satellite service then it is only as often as that system allows (typically 15minutes - 1 hour). With EOTrackMe, you can register as many devices as you own and your tracking map will use whatever data it receives to draw the best path it can. EOTrackMe also allows people to save and store their completed trip data. EOTrackMe took a huge amount of effort to develop but is a key reason these days that many people see value in the ExplorOz Membership. It provides a valuable tracking solution for family/friends and ties in nicely with your Blogs and Places.

Today its 2013 and we have just reached a Membership milestone - securing over 3200 Members. Our current projects for Members is upgrading the technology of EOTrackMe to enable compatibility for Android devices. As I type this blog, I am watching David out the window testing the device now!

We strive to constantly work with our Members to refine and improve our services and where necessary to develop and expand new features too.
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