Paper charts, raster files not going away

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The uproar was loud, but there is no plan for paper charts to disappear in the near future.

The uproar was loud, but there is no plan for paper charts to disappear in the near future.

June 1, 2017, was supposed to be a routine deadline. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had set the date as the end of public comment on its draft strategy about navigational products and services for America’s ocean and coastal waters, as well as the Great Lakes.

Yet in the days leading up to the deadline, rumors about the 2017 National Charting Plan spread online. Maptech and Landfall Navigation, which make chart products, stated that “NOAA wants to stop making NOAA charts” and “NOAA is planning on discontinuing the production of chart images used for printing detailed charts.”

Several industry voices rose to rebut the allegations.

“Having nautical charts available in a range of formats is key to boating safety, and we don’t expect paper charts to go away anytime soon,” says Susan Shingledecker, BoatUS Foundation vice president and a member of the NOAA Hydrographic Services Review Panel.

Ben Ellison, who publishes the marine-electronics blog Panbo, wrote, “Please don’t file a comment or call your congressman without looking deeper into the ‘news’ that NOAA plans to discontinue all (paper-chart-like) raster files.” And NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey announced, “Despite some reports to the contrary, the draft plan does not offer a timeline for ending the production of NOAA paper charts or raster navigational charts (RNCs).”

The agency then extended the public-comment period to July 1. “We’re really trying to make things better for everybody,” says John Nyberg, chief of the marine chart division of NOAA. “We want to stay relevant and keep up with technology. That’s what we’re trying to do. We are not canceling paper charts, nor are we canceling raster charts.”

Processes, he says, haven’t changed since 2013, when NOAA switched from printing lithographic copies of paper nautical charts to using a print-on-demand model that allows for weekly updates of survey data. “We have a number of print-on-demand partners with the government,” Nyberg says. “They are NOAA-certified chart agents. They sell charts to stores, so if you go to West Marine you can order a chart that’s up to date. With this model we can provide a full hydrographic survey that applies to raster, vector and paper — all of them. That hasn’t changed, and it isn’t going to change anytime soon.”

What has changed, he says, and what the 2017 Charting Plan acknowledges, is how people navigate. “Basically, people are using laptops and cellphones,” Nyberg says. “What we’re trying to do here is talk about possibilities for the future. It seems to me it would be irresponsible not to discuss moving toward an electronic world, because that seems to be the way the world is moving.”

Specifically, Nyberg says, the plan states that “the reduction or elimination of traditional paper nautical seems likely as the use of digital raster chart data in electronic charting systems (ECSs) increases.” And, “the reduction or elimination of all raster chart coverage seems likely as the use of electronic navigational charts (ENCs) in ECSs increases.”

This shift from paper to digital, Nyberg adds, may take decades to implement. “It will likely follow the development of the ability of the public or NOAA chart agents to print paper backups of ENC data,” he says. “As improvements are made to NOAA’s ENC data and the systems that mariners and recreational boaters use to display them, we expect that mariners and boaters will ultimately make the transition from raster charts to ENCs on their own.

“Our goal is for all mariners, including recreational, to prefer ENC data,” he says. “That was a big reason for starting this discussion in the draft plan. I know ENC is viewed by people for big ships and professional mariners, and I want this to be for recreational people, too.”

NOAA needs public feedback to help guide the next course of action, he adds. “Obviously, people like NOAA symbols and colors for charts,” Nyberg says. “I would like to hear a little bit more about that. And when boaters use electronic raster images, they overzoom, which distorts the scale.”

NOAA, he says, wants to hear from recreational boaters about locations where charting is needed at a larger scale and in greater detail, something ENC data can provide. “Safety is first in all this,” Nyberg says.

After NOAA evaluates further public comment on the 2017 Charting Plan, it will produce a new edition with a summary. “Honestly, I’m excited about it,” Nyberg says. “It’s a great opportunity for us to get working on a new system and data that I think people will like in the end.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.