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Uncharted Waters: NOAA Takes a Digital Dive

Ted Florence,
President, Avenza Systems


Recently, NOAA announced that its library of more than 1,000 nautical charts would switch its entire format to digital, eliminating the traditional lithographic or paper nautical charts as early as April 2014. Although a hard fact to face for mariners who grew up on traditional paper charts, the decision marks a milestone for map publishers in general and ushers in a new way of how we interact in our environment—in a business as well as geospatial sense.

The demand for paper map products is on the decline and similar to the music and book industries, it can also be viewed as a cost-cutting measure when it comes to “packaging” assets: The music company’s assets are its content in songs—not the physical CDs, cassettes and records of yesteryear; “The Great Gatsby” will continue to be a good story regardless of its hardcover, paperback or digital tablet form. So it is with the map publisher. The content will always be useful, but today’s “packaging” is greener for the environment, cost-effective for the publisher and more interactive to the consumer. NOAA is an example of a map publisher that is adapting its assets to a delivery and consumption model that embraces the technology of today.

Fortunately, the switch is happening at a time when there are systems in place such as geospatial PDF technology to ensure that digital versions of paper maps can be accessed and used by experts as well as novices. Aside from lithographic maps, today’s mariners use high-end dedicated nautical hardware systems or lower-priced consumer level hardware that are continuously updated with prepackaged maps. However, with devices such as smartphones and tablets equipped with apps, handheld devices have become so powerful and universal that many casual mariners are using dedicated smartphones to access numerous maps through apps such as Avenza’s (Toronto, Canada) PDF Maps app.

It’s important to note that while technology is transformative and incorporated to make everyday life easier, neither digital nor paper solutions are perfect as both have obvious advantages and disadvantages. Digital maps can obtain your location in relation to a map quickly and are not only greener but inexpensive to deliver and update in an industry where information changes constantly. Although paper and lithographic maps are more expensive and laborious to produce and distribute, they do not rely on batteries, which makes them more useful on longer excursions where electricity may not be accessible. NOAA had its audience in mind when it made the dive into digital, allowing for print-on-demand (POD) charts available from NOAA-certified printers. While print maps will never be fully replaced, digital maps do increase usability, efficiency and convenience.

We are in the midst of a geospatial evolution that is changing quickly. Although it’s very hard to see the future, it’s expected that map technology will become faster and more robust as it is used in durable devices capable of rendering larger and more complex maps with longer battery life or even solar batteries. Intelligent maps or digital atlases that have underlying metadata and layering will be able to be searched and analyzed, allowing more time to interpret a map rather than searching for answers.

The business of maps will also be affected. As digital maps become ubiquitous, map updates will become more frequent, and access to a wider variety of map content will be commonplace. Delivery methods will continue to be tested and the retail landscape will more than likely experience its own transformation, which in turn will create more competition between individual and established map publishers as anyone and everyone will be able to distribute their own maps.

We can never be too sure how the industry will reinvent itself down the road, but the NOAA decision—despite its critics—tells us there is a need and a slowly growing demand for digital maps. What we do know is that if there’s one thing that remains constant, it’s change … and the map industry is definitely tracking its movement.

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