Monday, June 1, 2015

Crowd-sourced Charts - Are We There Yet?

NOAA has 17 ships whose assignment includes depth surveying, according to a recent article that BoatUS published.

(Courtesy of Navionics)
But nearly every chartplotter sold now has depth sounding capabilities, tide charts, time/date, and the ability to customize the keel offset for the depth transducer.  So, virtually every boat out there with modern equipment has the ability to do what NOAA is doing.  And we outnumber NOAA millions to one.

Then where are the crowd-sourced charts?  Tho things have moved ahead amazingly since my last post on the subject a couple of years ago, we are not quite there yet.

First, tho the underlying data behind the conventional electronic charts on virtually all chart plotters was collected by NOAA and is available to all, the cartography is regarded as proprietary information by chart plotter manufacturers.  Either built into the units or on data cards, it is typically encrypted - and expensive.  Each manufacturer tries to differentiate itself from the crowd by offering special features in their cartography that are not available from others.

Next, collecting the sonar log data is one thing, but getting it all to one place and processing it to remove anomalies, mistakes, and malicious errors, turning it into charts, and then redistributing it... is completely another.  An entire infrastructure needs to be constructed.  Thanks to Al Gore's Internet and the invention of WiFi and BlueTooth, the underlying transport pieces are in place.

Finally, liability issues have yet to be sorted out.  Who is at fault, for example, if a ship runs up on the rocks while depending on charting based on data collected by hundreds of boaters, processed by Company XXX and displayed on an instrument made by Company YYY?  The lawyers must have their pound of flesh.

Nevertheless, progress is being made, as the article reveals.  Navionics  (whose only business is marine cartography) has a system in place for collecting, vetting, and distributing crowd-sourced data.  Ratheon (RayMarine), Hummingbird, and several others have incorporated Navionics' system into their instrumentation.   And Navionics even makes both a smart phone/tablet app (full disclosure: I have it) and a web-based version available.  It is really pretty slick!

But the 800 lb gorilla in the market, Garmin, has their back up and is working to create their own system.  In fact, Garmin modified their firmware specifically to prevent it from working with Navionics data (micro$oft anyone? "DOS isn't done until Lotus won't run!" was an early micro$oft rallying cry).  There is a very, very good discussion on this issue over at Panbo - I highly recommend it to you. Be sure to read down into the comments, where you will find even the founder of Navionics contributing.

So are we there yet?  I think not quite.

There needs to be an industry-wide standard that all manufacturers use to encode the sonar logs electronically - one that all manufacturers can read and write (like jpeg for pictures, as an example).    Navionics has developed one and it is in use industry-wide... with one exception.

Crunching the data is an issue.  It costs money to process all of the incoming data, to detect and remove errors, mistakes and malicious data.  Navionics is doing this today (200,000 sonar logs/day, and they're just getting started).  And most chart plotter manufacturers are happy to allow Navionics results to be used on their equipment.  Except one.

It would be a far better thing if all manufacturers embraced the concept of shared data - then all manufacturers would have better products.  Today, every manufacturer bases their products on the NOAA data and adds value thru other means.  Embracing crowd-sourced bathymetry and community edits in addition to the NOAA data is rapidly becoming the new standard.  It does nothing to prevent other value-added cartography features, and makes a better product.

When upgrading their electronic charting, every boater must make his/her own decision.  Should you buy into a closed system?  Or buy into one based on data shared across all the marine instrumentation manufacturers (except one).  But the question is deeper than that.  Given that marine charting is only 10% of Garmin's business, and if creating their own infrastructure and trying to compete with the entire rest of the marine industry proves to be too expensive a nut to crack, it is possible that they could simply exit the marine business altogether, meaning that buying into a Garmin-based system could get you a closed and orphaned system.

Finally, there is the liability issue.  But until a case is adjudicated in an Admiralty court, I'm afraid this will be in limbo.  

So no, we're not quite there yet.



Robert Salnick said...

Pelagia -

Yes, I do believe that a modern chart for plotter is much better equipment than NOAA used in the 70's and earlier. And the data collection is fully automated, so the competence of the boater doesn't come into play.

As to charting errors - I can show you several places in Puget Sound where the U.S. government charts are incorrect. The more sources of information you have, the less likely you are to get in trouble.

Anonymous said...

I think Navionics is the new standard and Garmin just hasn't gotten the memo. While every MFD manufacturer has their faults, IMHO Garmin has crossed the line more than once. First, they obsoleted their own proprietary map storage medium in favor of industry-standard SD cards. As step in the right direction? Think again. They offered no way for someone who'd already purchased their charts to get them on the new format so anyone who invested in their charts and wanted to upgrade to a newer Garmin system had to buy the exact same charts all over again. I can't think of a better way to drive your customers away at upgrade time. Now, they're thumbing their nose at the only cross-platform chart format that will, by definition, only get better over time. This problem will solve itself as Garmin falls further behind its competitors over time in terms of offering value to customers.

SV Pelagia said...

Any reason why you only posted your reply to my comment (about Navionics crowd-sourced charting) but did not publish my original comment?

Robert Salnick said...

I *did* publish your comment. Then it disappeared - I assumed you deleted it. If you still have it, please put it up again, since my response makes little sense without the context of your comment.

SV Pelagia said...

Hmmm, odd. No, I didn't delete my comment. You are correct, your response seems odd w/o my original comment. Here it is:

Posted June 1st: I've checked-out the user-sourced data on Navionics here in the Sea of Cortez. It took only minutes to realize I couldn't (and wouldn't) trust it. Verified? Not where I looked.

Crowd-sourced nautical data seems a bad idea to me, given the incompetence of some boaters.

Do you really think this is a reasonable alternative to the equipment, technical abilities, and professional skills of a NOAA
or CCG survey team? Or is it "quantity over quality"?

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