User-generated chart data is rapidly getting easier to create and share.
A particularly weak aspect of most electronic charting so far is that the point of interest overlays that should help you conveniently plan cruising stops are often inaccurate. Heck, years ago someone conflated a private marina in my harbor with the town’s own transient-dock facilities, then several other digital-chart companies copied the error, and the resulting mess of confused VHF and phone calls continues to this day. It’s increasingly clear that no single chart manufacturer can keep up with even such critical marina details as phone numbers, let alone collect the wealth of information to which we’ve grown accustomed while web researching nonsailing trips from office or home. Professionally published cruising guides are also hard pressed to meet modern expectations for timeliness and detail, and they’re further challenged by our growing willingness to wade through online forums, blogs, and wikis for valuable opinions posted by fellow enthusiasts. Lastly, there are the problems our government and others are having with the collection and distribution of critical chart data, particularly for the remote areas in which we like to cruise. So the stage is set for boaters to share firsthand data like never before, and the tools to do it well are materializing at an astonishing pace.
You may already be acquainted with ActiveCaptain.com. Formed in 2007, it is an interactive website where members can add or edit finely detailed descriptions of marinas, anchorages, and the like while also posting personal reviews that are as frank as they wish. Nearly 100,000 boaters have registered so far—access and posting are entirely free—and I can attest that some harbors I know well are better covered in A.C. than in any other source I’ve seen. In fact, I’ve contributed to A.C. coverage along the Maine coast, and it feels good to share my local knowledge with fellow gunkholers. Founders Jeffrey and Karen Siegel are quite active cruisers themselves, though they somehow still manage to keep watch on A.C. data quality and to create new info-sharing possibilities like Hazard Marks, which A.C. members use to inform each other about such trouble areas as shoaling spots and misplaced nav aids. But the Siegels always hoped to see the data available beyond the confines of an online PC running a web browser, and now that’s happening in spades.
The latest versions of two premier PC navigation programs, Rose Point’s Coastal Explorer and MaxSea TimeZero, can quickly download and cache the entire ActiveCaptain database wherever the Internet is available, as can Navimatics’ Tides & Charts app for iPhones and iPads. I’ve had the gratification of editing an anchorage note or adding a hazard marker on the A.C. website and seeing the updates sync onto these applications’ charts in just a few hours. Several other companies that are developing nav programs for these platforms, as well as for Android mobile devices, are about to announce similar A.C. support, and even a couple of the big multifunction-display manufacturers are considering the idea. So you no longer have be online, or even sitting at a traditional PC, to benefit from A.C. resources, and all these data partners will eventually enable anytime A.C. input that will be synced back to the master database whenever you do get online. But that’s not the big news.
In October, Navionics announced that its Mobile 5.0 apps for Apple and Android devices will soon facilitate what it calls U.G.C., for user-generated content, and it’s central to a re-envisioning of the company’s whole product line. The “Navionics Anytime, Anywhere” program rolling out in 2011 will mean that along with the purchase of a chart card, a Navionics user will get access to the same charts via a variety of free mobile apps and/or a new PC program, all of which can be used to edit or view the “community layer” of user-entered data. Moreover, the U.G.C. entered on those apps that passes a Navionics validation process will become part of its central chart database, and these updates, along with conventional updates from official sources, will not only be immediately available to the online apps but can also be added to the original chart card and then used in your primary navigation device. It’s worth noting that Navionics founder Guiseppe Carnevali, who helped to invent electronic charting in the early 1980s, is the chief and enthusiastic visionary behind U.G.C.; it’s hard to imagine a more important endorsement of chart crowd sourcing.