Behind the Scenes With Fish Rules

Artisans Collaborative had the opportunity to work with Rick Blalock to develop the Fish Rules App. This app helps anglers “fish without fear” by simplifying recreational saltwater fishing regulations. Along with the mobile app, we also developed fish.management, which helps government agencies more effectively manage and communicate fishery regulations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is working with Fish Rules App to improve angler compliance by streamlining the hodgepodge of recreational saltwater fishing regulations. We sat down with Rick this past week to get a behind the scenes look at the apps.


Who is Rick Blalock?

I've been programming for a long time. I can't remember when I wrote the first line of code, but I know it was in middle school when I was hacking a game. The first "real" project I worked on was a website for a church. I had never done a website before so I said, "Sure I'll do that” – the rest is history. I liked the creative process of programming. There is a creative problem-solving aspect that I like. It is solving problems that people have and providing solutions that people are actually going to use. It fits into how my brain works. There is always something new. Some people don't like it, but I like it. It keeps my brain fresh.

I liked the creative process of programming. There is a creative problem-solving aspect that I like. It's solving problems that people have and providing solutions people are actually going to use.
– Rick Blalock

PHP was the first language I used to create the church website. I work at Appcelerator now and we are full stack JavaScript from our mobile SDK, Titanium, to our API builder, Arrow; it is all JavaScript. On the side, I do things in Swift / Obj-C here and there too. Those are the languages I live and breathe right now.

About the Fish Rules App

Why did you decide to build Fish Rules?

I was sitting at lunch with Albrey Arrington, pitching an idea of an angler social network. He immediately shot it down due to some important points about how real anglers would perceive it. What came out of that conversation was a solution to a simple problem every angler has: knowing and abiding by fishing laws. Hence "Fish Rules" was born.

Tell us about Albrey Arrington

Albrey Arrington, PhD. is my business partner. I'm the technical arm and he's the fish ecologist. He does all the work of compiling the fishing regulations and ensuring that what is entered is accurate. He also runs our Facebook page and our other social channels.

From the first prototype to the current product, how long was the app in the works?

It took about a year to get the first version launched. That was over 4 years ago. We have been growing and changing how we do things since then. Now we release updates often and have more than 100,000 anglers counting on the regulations we have.

Who uses Fish Rules? What regions?

Fish Rules is for recreational anglers of all ages. We started in the southeast, from North Carolina to Texas (all the states in the southeast), because that is where the majority of saltwater fishing happens in our country. The government of the Bahamas gave us a grant to add the Bahamian regulations. Then, last year NOAA sponsored the regulations from the North East. We now have regulations from Maine to Texas. When the states on the West Coast decide to sponsor us, we will add them too.

Where do the rules come from?

The regulations come from the state and federal (NOAA) government agencies. There are no set standards for fishing regulations across the different management areas. Every state describes regulations differently. A regulation might be the same, but they just describe it differently. Our Fish Management app creates a normalized set of data that regulators can write and Fish Rules provides regulations that users can read and understand. The apps also cover special locations and regulations for the equipment you can and cannot use. For example, there are some fish you can only catch with a hook so it is very important to us to get the rules right from the government.

What additional features have users asked for?

Anglers have asked for notifications when rules change and for more fishing waters. They also ask for freshwater, which we have not decided if we are going to tackle yet. There are only so many species in a freshwater lake and the rules do not change as frequently.

How do anglers find out about Fish Rules?

Mostly at bait and tackle shops. The sheriff of the Florida Keys requires all their signs (any sign that is posted with regulations) to have the Fish Rules App advertisement underneath it. It says, “Hey download the app before going fishing.” We would love for more people to begin promoting the app as it is way better than lugging booklets around.

About Fish Management

What has been the response from regulators and fisheries?

Very enthusiastic. They all see the problem of managing fishing regulations. They all understand that the regulation papers and magazines you get in tackle shops are out of date the day they hit the shelves.

Who can get access and what types of information can they manage?

Governments and nonprofit groups mainly. They can manage the specific regulations related to a species and the boundary/ location in which those regulations reside. With a reach of over 100,000 active anglers using Fish Rules, Fish Management provides regulators with analytics on which species and regulations are most accessed.

How did you know what features regulators wanted?

Well, we knew what features we wanted first of all. There is no one else trying to normalize fish regulations around the country; we're doing that. So we built the Fish Management platform to solve our problems first and foremost – both from a scaling perspective (managing more and more state regulations) and a functional perspective (with Fish Management, a change in a regulation can be pushed out to the web app, mobile app, and anything else immediately).

Until there is an official specification, the Fish Rules app exists as the only coherent ruleset for anglers.

It would be nice if there were a set of standard fishing rules across the country. We want to work with NOAA to help develop this standardized ruleset for fishing regulations at the federal level and hope that states will begin to adopt them as they regulate their local waters. Until there are official specifications, the Fish Rules app exists as the only coherent ruleset for anglers.

How do regulators add new information?

Regulators can log in to the Fish Management platform, navigate to the regulation they wish to change/revise or create a brand new regulation. We regularly publish the updates to the app where they are accessible to anglers even while offline. Using GPS to pinpoint the exact waters the angler is in, Fish Rules provides accurate regulations.

About Fish Rules Technology

What technologies did you use to build the app?

We used Titanium for the mobile side and NodeJS for some backend server side support for the mobile app specifically (Parse server). We used NodeJS / Appcelerator's Arrow for the fishrulesapp.com website and a Laravel PHP backend application for the Fish Management platform. It’s all very orthogonal and API driven.

How did you handle Parse.com shutting down?

We used Parse.com's service toward the beginning of the MBaaS wars. I think we started using them at v0.8. When Facebook shut down Parse, we had to decide whether to migrate all the services and data, re-create them, etc. Fortunately, Parse open sourced their server, so it was a transition that literally took 2-3 hours for the mobile app and then a few code changes to the Fish Management platform to connect it all together.

What was your biggest challenge building the application?

The biggest challenge was ultimately the biggest value of Fish Rules: figuring out where a user is at based on latitude/ longitude and loading in the regulations relevant to that specific location. In many places, that's easy to figure out, but places like Florida make it very complex due to the multiple layers of regulations applied in certain areas.

What do you have planned for the app in the future?

For the mobile app, better fish logging and ways for a user to get regulation update notifications for specific areas. For Fish Management, we really want this to be the ubiquitous fishery management platform. We already have ways for people to embed regulations on websites, use the API to get data, and more. We want to expand this use for regulators, fisheries, and anglers alike.

Is the API open for developers to use?

From the Fish Management perspective, it is not an open API. You can contact us to get access. We can then help you figure out what services you will need. For example, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, all of their web content is static HTML pages. Every single species! So when they want to go change regulations, they have to go edit an HTML file and upload it. One of the things I would like to do is have a way for them to embed our regulations directly on their website. If they wanted to use the API, they could use the API for other products.

How do you feel about working with Artisans Collaborative?

The past few years of working with Artisans Collaborative have been amazing! We appreciate their fast iterations and thoughtful, in-depth analysis of the use cases we have. They make revising and managing multiple regulations a much simpler problem for us to solve. Their technical solutions are powerful tools that will help us scale our application stacks.