Garmin acquires boating database and community, ActiveCaptain

Garmin Ltd (www.Garmin.com) announced that is has acquired Active Corporation, the developer of ActiveCaptain (www.activecaptain.com), a recreational boating database and community which was co-founded by Jefferey and Karen Siegel. The Siegels are full-time cruisers whose crowd-sourced content comes from their 1.5 million cruising subscribers around the world. At the time of the acquisition, ActiveCaptain reported that they were managing an average of 1,800 daily updates from the cruising community and marinas, in addition to regularly released updates from coastal charting authorities. These world-wide updates include reviews of anchorages and marinas, fuel prices, and navigational hazards. In addition to chart enrichment, Active Corporation has a number of other applications, including e-cards, which allows subscribing boats to recognize and communicate with each other using electronic charting information, and some smartphone apps for boaters.

“Garmin is a technology leader among boaters,” stated Jefferey Siegel, in a joint press release on the acquisition. “We are looking forward to working with them to make ActiveCaptain even more robust and global.” In an interview prior to the acquisition, Siegel expanded on the global aspect: “We are already multi-nation in scope. Now we need resources for translation and other services that we simply do not have at present: The two of us are the sole employees, and those are the same people who run and maintain our boat.”

“There is really nothing else out there that compares to the depth and breadth of the ActiveCaptain database,” said Cliff Pemble, Garmin president and CEO. “We are delighted to add this technology to the Garmin portfolio.”

Crowd-sourcing that goes beyond marina and anchorage reviews is a controversial add-on to cartography. Siegel is quick to admit that there are always outliers in crowd-sourced data; people who send in exaggerated or misleading information. But there are two qualifiers in the ActiveCaptain crowd-sourcing methodology, and they are both applied prior to accepting a data change or note. The first is the accepted rule that a sufficient number of individuals providing a particular piece of data (e.g., the minimum shoaling depth of a river) will average the data point out to an accurate measurement. The second is a point system that scores each individual on their previous record of accuracy.

While the inclusion of ActiveCaptain in the Garmin technology portfolio is new, Garmin charting products already allow users to overlay their individual ActiveCaptain data subscription, which can be configured to update whenever the user connects to the Internet. In fact, ActiveCaptain data is currently available on nearly all major electronic charting platforms, thanks to previous efforts on the part of the Siegels to provide free data and daily updates to as many platforms as possible.

It remains to be seen whether Garmin will continue to allow that universal availability. The more likely outcome is that they will either monetize the data product, or use it as an exclusive feature for their own e-charting products. Pemble hinted as much in the announcement: “Garmin has extensive engineering and cartography capabilities that will allow ActiveCaptain to be deeply integrated into their product offerings.”

Siegel has long opposed charging the chart users for the data. Boater subscriptions to Active Captain are free of charge. “The model of charging the crowd that you source for data that they themselves are providing is a proven non-starter,” he commented at a recent public forum. The financial support model that appealed to Siegel from the beginning is the one used by Trip Advisor, which crowd-sources travel reviews and pricing information, and charges destinations and transportation resource entities for specific listing features.

Following that model, ActiveCaptain has sustained itself financially through support from marinas, which are charged for their membership. The Siegels saw early on that this was how the data product would monetize; in fact, it became profitable ahead of expectation. “Marinas have very few marketing outlets, and this is one that directly link them to their prime market: recreational boaters. Further, since both marinas and ActiveCaptain users can elect to be traceable on our network, marinas are able to see who is in reach and boaters will be able to get real-time data from the marinas. We have an excellent relationship with our marina members. Everything we have done with Active Captain is win-win.”

Under the terms of the acquisition agreement (whose financial details are undisclosed), the Siegels will become employees of Garmin. Jeffrey Siegel sees this as a double benefit: “Karen and I will get out of the day-to-day update tasks that have been consuming us, and we will both have the time and resources to concentrate on developing exciting planned and new features that we can roll out to our ActiveCaptain community.”

Much of the future plans for interactive chart use will require on-board Internet access. Siegel is confident that this access will become ubiquitous and inexpensive in the near future. “I’ve been speaking to a number of large digital technology corporations, and it’s clear that a number of them have plans to ensure world-wide, affordable access to the Internet. Wait four years: it’ll be on your boat. And for the people who use their boat to get away from digital communications? There will be an ‘off’ switch. Everybody wins.”

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