Charting Changes: NOAA’s plans for the future of charts (Poll)

Have you ever wondered why your depth sounder and chart do not agree on the suitability of a planned anchorage, or why all of the charts you have onboard show four mooring balls in that remote island cove you’ve chosen for the night and there are only two — both of them occupied? If so, you might be interested in the plans that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (or NOAA’s) Office of Coast Survey has for the future of coastal navigation. As it turns out, they are interested in hearing what you think as well.

First, a bit of rough history. If you have paper charts aboard (and the US Coast Guard recommends that you do), they were likely first drawn by NOAA in the 1940s, after World War II. Some of the information on your charts dates back to then. No problem, you say, I also have electronic charts aboard. In fact, I just updated them. The transfer from paper to electronic began in the 1980s. That electronic chart you just updated, in fact, likely carries a mixture of “raster” (converted paper) and “vector” (drawn from electronic data points) charts. As a result, much of the “updated information” displayed on your chartplotter came from those very same paper charts, drawn in the 1940s, modified along the way, in part. Further, your chartplotter/computer is designed to not show you the difference between what is drawn from paper and what is drawn from recent data points. There’s a lot more to understand about this, and an excellent book by Nigel Calder that does the explanation, but we’ll leave it there for now.

Back to your anchoring plans. What if, the week before, someone else had discovered the same 10 foot discrepancy, and had, with a few well-placed clicks and choice words, decided to let everyone else who uses charts know about it — in real time? And what if your chart auto-updated once a week — which is how often NOAA updates its chart information. Or as one recreational boater recently said, “What if NOAA had a plan to use the Internet?”

These kinds of questions were flying around a room in the basement of Seattle’s Hotel Monaco in mid-April, as the NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey held a panel discussion during a two-day stakeholder meeting designed to solicit input on their plans for the future of coastal charting. There were about 60 people in the room, most of them representatives of formal stakeholders, ranging from the United States Coast Guard to Rose Point Navigation Systems, who supply commercial vessels with proprietary chart-plotting software. The discussion was presided over by Rear Admiral Shepard “Shep” Smith, who as director of the Office of Coast Survey, is the Chief Hydrographer of the United States. That means he’s responsible for the nation’s charts.

OCS’ parent agency NOAA is itself an agency of the United States Department of Commerce, so it should come as no surprise that their main concern is commercial traffic. Since 90 percent of US trade is conducted on the sea, it follows that this traffic is also a concern of the Federal Government in general, especially (one might assume) under the current administration.

“We’re at a major pivot point at OCS,” Admiral Smith pointed out in a recent interview. “The paper era is finished.” For years, NOAA has focused on delivering accurate charts, ocean and wind forecasts to mariners. “We’re already out of the chart publishing business,” Smith elaborated, “we farmed that out to the private sector a while ago, when it became clear that we were losing money on the publication.” He fingered the polished corner of his iPad. “Now we have to decide if we are publishing data, or supplying it, and to whom. And the form of that data is changing. The draft plan presented at the meeting heralds the end of feet and inches — depth will now be measured and displayed in meters.” NOAA attempted to do this years ago. There was pushback. Now they declare, it’s really happening.

“We also have to decide what our best capabilities are. The world we are responsible to document is changing faster than we can survey it. Even when one includes our robotic surveying methods — underwater and surface drones using the latest bathymetric technology, it is impossible to keep up with rising water levels and shoaling in inland waterways. Here in the Pacific Northwest, you are well-served by recent surveys , but the East Coast and the Gulf Coast in particular, are not. The small craft charts for every region have to be re-thought.”

Smith went on to note that NOAA agencies have created some excellent tools using data from buoys and manned and unmanned vessels. “We have operational forecast systems that can give an individual user forecast data combining tide, current, water temperature and salinity.”

And these forecast tools are customized, based on user feedback. NOAA maintains partnerships with regional organizations such as the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observational Stations (NANOOS). The purpose of these partnerships is to provide regional datasets to NOAA, but also to create useful and user-friendly ways of delivering this data to local mariners and those concerned with the health of local waters. Jan Newton, the executive director of NANOOS and a professor at the University of Washington, presented a number of web-interface tools that NANOOS has created for local mariners. “We talked to people in the tuna fishery business,” she said during the panel discussion, “and discovered that water temperature is great predictor of the presence of tuna. So we created a forecast tool for fishermen that shows them when and where the ocean temperature in the Pacific Northwest will be favorable for tuna fishing.” But NANOOS’s work also serves the general goals of efficient and safe passagemaking. Dr. Newton displayed a web interface that makes it possible to plot a PNW course along a set of waypoints and calculate the most efficient way to use tides and currents along the course at a specific date and time. There’s also a link to a weather forecast probability map from the University of Washington.

A recreational boater who wants to know the most efficient way to travel from Seattle to the San Juan islands and back over a specific set of days could use this data now.

And all of this is already paid for. “We exist because we are funded by the US taxpayers,” Shep Smith points out, “All of the data we provide is free to the user.” NOAA does this in sharp contrast to its European counterparts, as Jeff Hummel, Marketing Director of Rose Point Systems, remarked to the gathering. European mariners, for instance, pay well for updated hydrographic information.

A number of people pointed to the problem of federal mandates and jurisdictions that did not seem to make sense. Mr Hummel mentioned that it became legal “only last week” for commercial ships to use (the more updated) electronic charts as their primary navigation tool. He added that the standards for electronic charting are set by the US Coast Guard. As the primary gatherer and aggregator of the information, he opined, “NOAA is the proper guardian of such standards.”

Active Captain’s Jeff and Karen Siegel.

But the speaker who created the most stir at the meeting was an invited guest from the recreational boating community: Jeff Siegel, a serial entrepreneur whose Active Captain (URL) is an online charting information add-on and boater network with 1.5 million members worldwide. In the process of creating and serving its community, the Active Captain team (Jeff and his wife Karen), discovered a large number of boaters who were very interested in creating and using crowd-sourced data for their navigation. The overlay created by that data is available in a wide variety of major chart-plotting software, for worldwide locations.

Thanks to these pro-active users, “We process 1800 updates a day, many of them providing information on hazards to navigation that do not appear or are not apparent on charts,” Siegel said, adding: “Three and a half years ago, at NOAA’s invitation, we began providing NOAA chart makers with that information.” And the data flow is not in a single direction. “We also post changes from the NOAA’s Notice to Mariners on Active Captain.” Smith had invited Siegel to present the value of real-time crowd-sourcing for charting in general, and Siegel did not disappoint. Nor did he stop there.

Siegel provided a provocative bombshell when he presented his recommendations to the meeting: “NOAA should signal that it is getting out of the recreational boating industry. It’s the only way to spark developers to create new private-sector products that use data developed by NOAA.” (The commercial users noted separately that the recreational boating industry was not NOAA’s main concern, anyway.) Siegel also tweaked the trunk of the elephant in the room: “Where is the Internet in NOAA’s long-term planning?” He had polled his user base before attending, and received replies from 450 users who said that the most important thing that NOAA could do for them was to provide more accurate depth information. The same users were willing to share what their own depth transducers were telling them, at specific waypoints, in real time.

“There’s a privacy issue,” in sharing that real-time data, Siegel commented later. ‘Not everyone is willing to let the world know that they are boating in Key West while their mansion in Boston sits unoccupied.” But Active Captain has the ability to verify the reliability of individual users while retaining their anonymity. It’s a small problem that is seemingly overcome. Siegel also sees no medium-term obstacle in having affordable, continuous Internet access aboard recreational boats: “Wait four years,” he predicted. There are well-heeled corporations who have a great deal of motivation to ensure that the entire globe can be connected, reliably and affordably.

What else does the future look like? NOAA is asking users for their opinion. A full text of their Office of Coast Survey draft plan is available here. You’ll find instructions on how to comment online or via snail mail here. Comments from the public are due by June 1st.

For those of you who are less inclined to tell a government agency what they should do, perhaps you’d like to tell Three Sheets Northwest. Fill out the survey below, and we’ll pass your anonymous opinions on.

Create your own user feedback survey

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4 Responses to Charting Changes: NOAA’s plans for the future of charts (Poll)

  1. Wally Moran May 11, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    Using Active Captain or indeed, any sort of crowdsourced data is idiocy unless that data has the element of human error removed from it. Using AC as an example, I can point to hundreds of errors caused by the human input factor – errors in location, in tidal state, depth and more. In fact, pointing out those errors as a professional boating journalist and experienced boater, and the dangers they create for unwary boaters has caused significant friction between Siegel and myself numerous times in the past.
    Let’s face it – a couple of years ago, Siegel attempted to critique the Explorer charts for the Bahamas and showed that he has zero comprehension of cartography. He may be a skilled tech geek, but his in depth knowledge of other issues is sorely lacking. He’s the guy with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail. The issues are far more nuanced than that.
    Electronic data that is tied to a GPS and not some inexperienced captain’s guesstimate of where he is and what the tidal state is need to be the standard.

    • Stephen Hulsizer May 11, 2017 at 10:21 pm #

      Given the nature of the crowd, I would regard crowd sourced information with a ten foot pole. If it was verified by NOAA, fine. The other problem is the obsession with internet updates. There are still many areas of the US and Canada, let alone the world without internet service, unless one is one of the 1% who can afford to handle big data downloads via satellite.

      We do use electronic navigation, but always have a paper chart at hand. We make a vinyl sack that will hold a full size chart folded in half, so it is readily visible, and keeps it dry.

  2. Michael May 10, 2017 at 12:36 pm #

    Disgusting.

    “NOAA should signal that it is getting out of the recreational boating industry. It’s the only way to spark developers to create new private-sector products that use data developed by NOAA.”

    NOAA’s duties exist to further commercial interests – and in the process, the gathered public good is distributed to all for use. The charts benefit everyone, as safe navigation is a public good.

    Seems obvious certain folks would want NOAA to go the way of the British Admiralty and be able to obtain a monopolized license to distribute information gathered at the tax payer’s expense.

  3. Doug Bostrom May 7, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    Terrifically informative article and thank you for it!

    It’s perhaps important to remember why the government (us, actually)was in the charting business in the first place, from the perspective of nonmilitary applications. Support for commercial marine activity was seen as important to the general welfare and hence the general population was seen as being responsible for supporting charting activity. Thus logically and appropriately we citizens paid the bill for charts whether or not we were standing at a chart table on the bridge of a vessel.

    So, to characterize NOAA’s chart publication activity as a money-loser omits the very reason for NOAA’s existence and is a bit of an “own goal” coming from the mouth of a NOAA representative. It’s simply an inadequate description of the reality of the situation.

    There is no such thing as free lunch. We will pay for charts, one or another, and more or less efficiently. To the extent that NOAA’s duties are shifted to the private sector, we create structural waste in the form of profits taken by owners of private enterprises. As this diversion of funds and resultant profit is the sole objective of private enterprise, eliminating this form of waste means circling back to a not-for-profit model. “Not-for-profit” pretty much includes government, even though in point of fact we all profit from the activities of government as in the case of NOAA.

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