Monday, May 08, 2006

Jim Eagles: Around the world by blog

The idea for what was probably the world's first internet travel diary was cooked up in a spa pool on Stanley Pt on Auckland's North Shore on a fine January night five years ago.

Freshly arrived from Britain, Dominic and Sharon Stow installed a spa pool in their new home - "because that's what Kiwis do, isn't it?" - and sat back in the warm water to ponder the meaning of life.

Keen travellers, they recalled some of their trips together and bemoaned the fact that while they'd sent lots of newsy emails to family and friends they had no record themselves.

Maybe it was the inspiration of the starry night but Dominic, a software engineer, suddenly came up with the idea of a website where travellers could post their travel diaries for contacts to read and remain a permanent record.

"The more we talked about it the more brilliant it seemed. Ideas just came pouring out. You could post your photos. The site could automatically notify your contacts by email whenever you added a new report. There could be an interactive map so you could trace your journey. We could create personalised e-vaults where people could record secure information like passport numbers and travel insurance details. It was amazing."

It took a while to transform that idea into reality - "because I had a real job and I go windsurfing so the website was written on wet days when I wasn't working" - but by mid-2002 Backpackersdiary went live.

These days blogs are commonplace and there are several travel diary websites but then the concept of posting information on the internet was still in its infancy.

"If I'd taken the idea and run with it when it was new maybe I'd have made a fortune," says Dominic now, "but that wasn't the object of the exercise.

"I just wanted to create somewhere people could record their journeys, let friends know what they were doing - maybe do a bit of online gloating - exchange ideas and get useful information. And that's still what I'm doing."

These days backpackersdiary.com remains a low-key operation, promoted only by electronic word of mouth, which Dominic manages in his spare time.

The site includes all the features he first thought about during his epiphany, plus a few extras like global weather and currency information, but the main thrust is still to allow travellers to record their words, photos and maps, to be shared with friends and preserved for future reminiscences.

Once you've registered you just sign in through an internet cafe or laptop, write your journal, download photos, update the trip map and ask for your contacts to be told there's a new chapter waiting to be read.

It is free, though you will have to pay if you want to store more than 1Mb of photos or to take advantage of a link which allows mobile phone text messaging.

It also remains non-commercial, though he is thinking about trying to find sponsors from the travel industry.

It has around 500 regular users, who send details of their travels to some 2000 contacts, and is expanding by half-a-dozen a day.

"Most of the users are in Britain, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand and the US," he says, "but I am starting to get more from Asia.

"For instance," he adds, checking his laptop, "today I've had people sign up from Indonesia, India, Britain and US ... and here's one from the Philippines, there's quite a few starting to come in from there."

Although the travel blog scene is getting crowded Dominic reckons his is still cutting edge. "I think this is the only free blog offering a secure e-vault for storing personal information and I don't know of any others offering a text message link."

And he is keen to keep it that way. "There are a lot of features I'm working on adding, mainly to take advantage of new technology, like using GPS to update locations or letting people send data and pictures from mobiles.

"I certainly don't make money out of the site. In fact if you were to cost out the hours I put in it would be costing me a lot. I still enjoy it, it's fun to run, and I get a real kick out of knowing there's a lot of people out there using my site to exchange their stories around the world which is what the internet is all about."

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