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Jochen Duckeck: interview about showcaves.com website
Tell us a little about your project. At what point did you begin? Was it related to your profession and education?
My website (showcaves.com) is about any kind of underground tourist sites in the world. This includes show caves, show mines, but also crypts, catacombs, underground houses and cave churches.
It started actually in 1990 following the collapse of the German wall in 1989. It was possible to visit the GDR without restrictions for the first time in more than 30 years. I lived at the border and had heard about show caves on the other side, so I went there to visit them. Without any info except a dot on a (paper) map.
That's when I mentioned that there was a book about show caves but it included only West German caves, and it was outdated. So I added the East German caves and updated the West German caves. Unfortunately nobody was willing to publish it. Self publishing was still 20 years in the future...
I extended my cave descriptions one by one, only as a personal data collection. But when I started to work for a university in 1993 I discovered that they were in need of a webmaster, and I volunteered to create their websites and I was allowed to publish my guidebook of the show caves of reunited Germany online. It was the time of HTML 1.0 and Mosaic browser. I used latex2html to convert my book into a website.
When I travel, I make a list of tourist sites for the country I will visit, collecting all kinds of stuff, location, open hours, description, asf. That's the info a traveler needs. Unfortunately guide books like Lonely Planet list some caves, but often not the most interesting ones, only the most "touristy" ones. So I started to create my own list as web pages and add the next country to my website. And add the data I found out during the journey to my webpages afterwards.
I studied Computer Science and Geology, work as a software developer and my hobby is to visit caves and research background info, and the website is a sort of personal database of things I learned and preparation for my next travels.
How do you search for information about caves? What serves as sources - books, atlases, or online data?
I use any source I have. I own an extensive cave, mines, geology, and travel library. But I also use any online resource I can find. In general I start with a few travel guidebooks, and make a list of caves, then I search with search engines for additional info on each.
I think that's the basic principle of my website: it is the combination of all possible sources and the filter of those infos with my knowledge as caver and geologist, so I am able to skip most of the legends and lore which is published by marketing guys and told by cave guides. Legends, if they are relevant or funny, are marked as legends.
Nowadays, most travelers use mobile apps and offline maps. What do you see as the shortcomings of mobile apps when it comes to caves? Can a mobile app help with navigating caves or are other tools needed here?
There are two aspects. The first is to find a location and get there while it is open. So a navigator like google maps is very helpful. And a database with open hours too. I always hoped to create a sort of poi map for google or probably OpenStreetMap, but so far I found no solution. I note lat/long for any site in a database, so I will probably be able to create this in the future.
Then there is the visit itself. There are about a dozen apps by big show caves on the App Store. You can download audio files and the smartphone becomes an audio guide. Thats really great, but I am not able to provide that kind of info, that's the job of the operator.
I have optimized the printing of my pages so people can print them for the visit. Or they can open the page before they enter the cave on their smartphone. For this reason I optimized the pages to be responsive, as much as possible without restrictions on the content.
Smartphones are fragile and they actually need internet and gps to work properly, so they are mostly useless underground, except for the audio guide aspect.
But there are interesting research projects. For example Grotta Gigante installed wifi inside the cave and their app provides audio guide features and is able to download the audio files inside the cave on demand. At first the app was only available inside the cave, not on the internet. They obviously learned that this was a bad idea and it's now on the App Store.
How often do you explore caves yourself? How much time do you devote to it in your life?
Actually I need a daily cave tour if I travel. I attend cave related conferences if possible, so it's several weeks per year. And then there are weekend trips.
However, I have become an "Armchair Caver" for the rest of year, so I am actually caving virtually. Especially the pandemic has become a major problem. Not only because of the restrictions, also because many sites closed or because the sites were unable to adapt. Big tourist venues are able to handle such restrictions, but 90% of the small sites are operated by volunteers who were not able to keep them open. I hope this will normalize now.
I always did some caving, but I am not very fit and so I concentrate on the touristic aspect.
Also, I am more interested in the scientific aspect, than the extreme sports aspect.
Judging statistics, are there many people in the world who are interested in caves? From what countries do people mostly come to your website?
Yes, the underground tourist sites all over the world create revenues in the billions. Many people visit a cave if they are on holiday.
Also the number of adventure tours, cave trekking, extreme sports, canyoning or however you want to call it, increased substantially in the last decade. That's actually not a good thing. The problem is that caves are fragile, and using them as a tool for workout destroys them.
I hope that my site will redirect those people to organized activities, which provide security to the participant and protection to the site.
I started to analyze web traffic when I had my first own server and domain around 2000. The obvious results were:
people visiting the website are from countries with good internet access, primarily the USA, Canada, and Europe.
people look for a cave they plan to visit and find the page with a search engine. 99 % of my visitors only check out this single page. Optimizing the navigation did not change this. They are simply not interested in any background info.
I also had the idea that visitors would send updates, if they visited a site and found out that something had changed. A few lines by email or a picture of the open hours and entrance fees sign at the ticket office would have been nice. This actually never happened. Not one single time in almost 30 years.
I guess my website is visited by 5000 to 10000 people daily, and I get 5 emails per month which are not spam. Helpful updates, five times a year if I am lucky, typically by an annoyed cave owner who raised the entrance fees and is outraged by the fact that people learn on my page, how much cheaper it was 5 years ago. It seems it is much easier to motivate people by annoying them, than by offering support.
So obviously the topic is not good for building a sort of community. That's the simple reason why the topic is not suitable for social media, or social media is not suitable for this topic.
However, a few years ago the GDPR was introduced and there are numerous restrictions now, including the logging of server access. I decided to avoid any legal issues and deactivated any logging, any cookies, even the google maps. There is no social media button on my site and I removed all links to facebook and other social media. It's impossible to keep up to date with those, and the actual information or knowledge there is close to none.
As a result I have no idea how many people visit my website today. However, you found my site, and I even received an award from the German caver association a few years ago, so I guess it is helpful for some people.