User-generated chart data is rapidly getting easier to create and share.
Rounding out this whole Navionics ecosystem of online and offline user and pro data is a concept called Plotter Sync whereby a display made by, say, Raymarine—the first to demo it—and networked to a WiFi router automatically recognizes the Navionics app running on, say, the iPad on which you recently planned your next cruise and, bada bing, downloads the route. Now at this writing, the timing and details of all these features are a bit tentative, and Plotter Sync obviously involves partner cooperation, but note that once a mobile device-to-fixed boat system wireless connection has been created, further possibilities abound. For instance, the mobile device might receive vessel-sensor data like GPS, wind, and depth—thus making it better for backup navigation—and/or it might deliver collected-ashore online content like weather forecasts or software updates to the boat.
I digress, but a glimpse at the whole Navionics vision does suggest what a big deal U.G.C. is and the level of enthusiastic embrace that one hopes it will receive from manufacturers and cruisers alike. It also explains why the U.G.C. facility in Mobile 5.0, which I’ve been beta testing, includes extensive abilities to add or edit nav aids and other critical chart objects. For instance, it’s easy to drop the appropriate icon for the various privately maintained channel and hazard buoys that are often uncharted today. And if what you discover is a misplaced aid or rock or marina, the “community layer” of the Navionics app will show its original position as well as the new one, so other users can double check, and possibly correct, your chart edit. Note that everyone’s updates are automatically sent to all other Navionics apps that cover the same chart area, instantly if they’re online, and the community layer can be turned off if the chart gets too cluttered for other uses.
Some traditional navigators object vociferously to the idea of user-generated chart updates, but the truth is that official cartography organizations like NOAA seem hamstrung by cumbersome survey/update processes and limited funds. Besides, NOAA’s stated priority is commercial shipping areas, not remote cruising grounds. The tricky part for Navionics will be validating such updates, though some will be easy. For instance, there’s a harbor breakwater in Jonesport, Maine, that’s gone uncharted for over 20 years, though it’s clearly visible on easily accessible satellite-photo maps. Nearby and more problematical is a charted, but likely nonexistent, awash-at-low-tide rock that appears to block an otherwise attractive passage to beautiful Roque Island. Navionics may understandably balk at removing it altogether—the lawyers!—but even a charted note listing all the cruisers who couldn’t find it—including me, using side-scanning sonar equipment—could reduce the anxiety, or long detours, experienced by first-time visitors. I understand the reluctance of traditionalists—official charts have earned biblical status—but I like to think they’ll come around when benefits like the ones above become common.
The Navionics U.G.C. system provides less controversial point-of-interest data on marinas and anchorages too, though with less detail than ActiveCaptain and without A.C.’s rating/review capabilities. There certainly are other marine-oriented, user-generated databases available, as well as professional content formatted to take advantage of the web’s unlimited page space and rapid updating, and hardcore cruisers may find themselves looking for a program that supports as many sources as possible. Rose Point Navigation’s just-released Coastal Explorer 2011 offers a great model for what’s possible.
When C.E. 2011 is online, the Guide Book mode lets you overlay the chart of a possible destination or route with A.C. info, worldwide photos shared on Panoramio.com, official content parsed from pilot books and Sailing Directions by Rose Point itself, and even C.E.’s own form of crowd sourcing. The latter is more free form than A.C. or U.G.C., and while it hasn’t caught on yet in the United States, extensive piloting and even marine history for the United Kingdom and western Europe is freely downloadable in this form. All these layers can be switched on and off individually, and all disappear when you switch to another C.E. mode. This data also stays cached on your PC, and Rose Point has even devised an automated way to pass it from your laptop to a permanently installed boat computer.
MaxSea TimeZero charting software already offers some of the same data as C.E., has a similar architecture for handling it, and other developers are catching up. But Rose Point has also demonstrated how neatly traditional and still handy printed guides can be integrated into multi-source cruising-info systems. Its partnership with the Atlantic Cruising Club means that C.E. users can view marina extracts from the A.C.C.’s meticulous guides for free. And if a C.E. user buys one of the guides, the included CD will make its entire contents, plus extras like more photos, available in C.E., along with updates that are easily synced along with all the other sources mentioned.
Other professional publishers are certainly looking at ways to make their data more accessible and fresher using the same underlying technologies that make crowd sourcing possible. The Waterway Guides, for instance, are not only posting updates on its website but also making its printed products available as iPhone and iPad apps. Some of the data is also searchable on the new EarthNC Apple and Android charting app, as is info from Marinas.com, Marinalife, and CruisersNet.
Plus there’s a whole other aspect to marine crowd sourcing that I haven’t mentioned: straight up data collecting. Survice Engineering has just tested the Argus system in which volunteer vessels used their own electronics to collect depth and water-temp data into an Argus device able to store it for later WiFi transmission to Argus servers for quality control and, possibly, eventual submission to NOAA. If successful, future volunteers will get free high-power WiFi for their trouble, and NOAA’s survey backlog will shrink. A similar but more cruiser-to-cruiser project is under way in England.
Are you getting excited about user-generated content yet? I hope so, because I have a proposition: I’ll keep typing my Maine cruising discoveries into whatever crowd-sourcing formats I can (and writing more about the choices on my Panbo blog, available via www.cruisingworld.com), but I’ll also be looking for some quid pro quo from you next autumn. Gizmo, God willing, will migrate down the coast and, while I’ll certainly bring along a wealth of official cartography and professional guide content, I think I’ll have an easier time, and more fun, with further guidance from my crowd.
Ben Ellison is CW’s electronics editor.