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New Am. Whitewater Paddler Website: Safety Issues
3/7/2019 5:03 PM
Revision of American Whitewater's Website:
Limiting Info Raises Safety Issues
by Larry Lempert
Paddlers beware: a redesign of the much-relied-on American Whitewater website has changed the color-coding to portray some rivers as "runnable"; at levels that would be dangerous for all but expert paddlers.
The redesign at americanwhitewater.org, rolled out in January and supported by a U.S. Coast Guard grant, also has suffered from programming glitches that have caused certain detailed information about river levels to disappear from the site. AW has acknowledged that there were substantial problems with the rollout, and according to an email from National Stewardship Director Kevin Colburn, has bug fixes and enhancements coming "as fast as our programming team can crank them out." But AW hasn't committed to any schedule, so Caveat Emptor is the watchword for now.
The AW Beta newsletter says the foremost goal was to make it easier to edit river pages so important information can be shared. Colburn also has said that AW aimed for better display on mobile devices, use of a modern code base to facilitate enhancements, and more prominent placement of safety information.
On a key matter of safety, however, the site used to have five informative categories: "Below Recommended," "Low Runnable," "Runnable," "High Runnable," and "Above Recommended."
These have been collapsed into three less informative categories, with the former "Low Runnable," "Runnable," and "High Runnable" now forming one "Running" category. This allows some potentially dangerous misdirections for the unwary who scan pages and focus on green as a signal for Go.
For example, the Lower Yough remains green/"Running" between 4 and 7.5 feet; this is in stark contrast to the 2.0-2.5-foot levels most paddlers are familiar with and at which the rapids are described. Stonycreek shows as green/"Running" up to 3980 cfs; if you didn't know Stony, you wouldn't know that 3980 is ripping high. Even worse, the Potomac Little Falls run was being depicted as benevolent green/"Running" when the Little Falls gauge approached 6 feet—a far from benevolent level (at which you will NEVER EVER find me paddling Little Falls!) that the prose description acknowledges as having Class V characteristics. Fortunately, some page editing has been done to override the Little Falls misinformation, but it's unrealistic to think that individuals can catch and intervene to manually adjust all the programming-driven miscues. While it's true that the former site's runnability classifications were sometimes misleading, it's beyond argument that the redesign makes matters worse, not better.
The data that has been disappeared (hopefully only temporarily) due to programming problems includes the detailed history of gauge movements throughout the day. Also, for each river, gauge information is now given in cfs or feet, but not both. While many trip planners prefer to know cfs, a lot of paddlers still relate to levels in feet, and having both is better than limiting the site to one or the other.
In addition, the site has made it much more cumbersome to get to the USGS source pages for the gauge information, although with persistence you can make it there. Even the state river gauge summary pages, the most helpful and heavily used pages on the site, are harder to get to now. Here are two tips for those particular issues:
To access a river gauge summary page, from the top menu dropdowns select River Info, then National Whitewater Inventory (how’s that for a user-friendly label—NOT!), and then State Gauges to pick a state from the map or a list below.
To access the USGS source gauge, from a particular river summary page click on the Flow tab, scroll down to find and click on Gauge Location, then on the resulting page look for the link to Source Gauge’s Page. The site does render more readably on a mobile device, judging by its appearance on an Apple iPhone 7.
AW has asked paddlers to bear with them while efforts to fix and enhance the site continue and has suggested that feedback will be most valuable once the dust has truly settled (whenever that might be). If paddlers do want to provide input now, comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don't hope for even a temporary rollback to the old site while work continues, though. Colburn says, "We can't switch between the old and new site because of complexities with the vast database behind the site."
Whether the AW site has achieved its goals of making it easier to edit pages and share information, I can't say, not having used that feature previously.
With all the information it brings together, the AW site is a terrific resource and is well-deserving of the financial support that it seeks from site users. (Although the site is open to all, it's programmed to ping you mercilessly if you don’t pony up.) Because we* do contribute funds it—at least I do, and I hope you do too—we certainly have good grounds for speaking up and for expecting remediation to come reasonably soon.
The CCA ponies up $100 a year to AW.
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