The Impact of NOAA's Move to Digital-only for Nautical Charts

December 5, 2013

Sharing is Caring

As early as April 2014, NOAA will discontinue printing its lithographic nautical charts in favor of its increasingly popular digital versions, saving the organization millions of dollars in printing and updating (press release). Directions Magazine interviewed Ted Florence, president of Avenza Systems, a company that already works with NOAA on creating a working geo-referenced digital map for use on hand-held devices, about the move to digital.

Directions Magazine (DM): Avenza has noted that in 2013 both novice and more experienced mariners have had access to technology that can provide accurate readings in a store-bought, hand-held device. That, the company suggests, creates a "geospatial evolution.” What are the hallmarks of that evolution? What makes this evolution to digital different than those in music, film or aeronautical charts? Or is it very much the same?

Ted Florence (TF): Nowadays, access to devices and technology capable of rendering and using maps is available to everyone. This is simply because even at the most basic level of use cases and needs, all one requires is a smartphone, tablet or even a smart music player. Today, with an iOS or Android device one has all the computing power necessary to use maps of all kinds (not just nautical ones) and perform all the expected tasks on those maps.

So indeed, this has created a "geospatial evolution" because the average person is now involved in using geospatial information on an almost daily basis, whereas before geospatial information and technology were reserved for academia, government and big business. Similar to the way in which we have seen music, books and video transition over the last decade from analog delivery and use models to digital, we now see the same thing happening with maps. Not only is this now seen as an obvious evolution of the map industry following what we have seen primarily in music and books, but given that the commercial audience is already well accustomed to shopping for, buying and using books and music electronically on their devices, it is not at all a stretch to encourage them to now do the same with maps.

DM: How do today’s mariners access digital data? On what sorts of devices? With what sort of software? How does the digital solution compare with good old paper?

TF: Today's mariners access their digital map information in several ways. Some use higher-end dedicated nautical hardware systems from well-known providers that come pre-packaged with all the nautical maps and updates they require, while others use lower-priced consumer level hardware that also comes pre-packed with maps.

Increasingly, however, and especially so for the more casual mariner, and as devices become more powerful and ubiquitous, people are using dedicated smartphone and tablet apps that are specific to a map publisher and geographic jurisdiction or PDF Maps, the iTunes-for-maps like app for smart devices which allows the user to buy smart digital maps one at a time as needed, like users already do with songs and books.

Neither digital nor paper solutions are perfect. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Digital maps are cheap to deliver and update, are "green" and always know where you are, but if the battery dies on your device you could find yourself without a map. On the other hand, paper maps do not require batteries to use but do not know where you are and are much more expensive and laborious to deliver, distribute and update and are not as eco-friendly.

DM: What is the impact of the NOAA decision to go digital (along with that of the USGS to offer digital topos) on traditional commercial map publishers?

TF: This can be seen as an indication, from a large publisher of maps, that the demand for paper map products is on the decline and that digital map systems are the future, just like we have already seen in the music and book industries. It can also be viewed as a cost-cutting measure, as if indeed the demand for paper maps is going down then it could be argued why should NOAA, USGS or any commercial publisher spend the money required to maintain and print thousands of maps and distribute them all over the country if fewer and fewer people want them.

For commercial publishers this means the same thing. They have to do what music, book and movie publishers have already done and adapt their product assets to these new delivery and consumption models and embrace the future. At the end of the day, if map publishers recognize that their products are not paper or books but rather geographic information that just happens to be delivered currently on paper or in book form then the transition should go over with less reticence.

DM: Will this announcement change Avenza’s product mix? Are new products or enhancements coming to address these charts?

TF: Avenza's product mix will essentially not change as a result of this evolution unless you consider improvements and enhancements to existing products.

Figure 1: MAPublisher is Avenza’s cartography software for Adobe Illustrator.

The Avenza MAPublisher and Geographic Imager map authoring systems are "output-agnostic" in that as times have been changing Avenza has ensured that these map-creation environments have kept up so that now Avenza's products support output to paper, Web and digital use platforms. So other than continuing to maintain and improve these products, the mix will not require too much change. Avenza already has the popular and growing PDF Maps app and map store system [think iTunes for maps] which supports iOS and Android devices so other than continuing to maintain and add features to these mobile products the only possible changes to that product mix would possibly include the addition of Windows and Blackberry versions and possibly a server-type product. Right now, over 2,500 NOAA charts are already available in the PDF Maps system. We will be expanding this inventory and making map updates available. As well, all the great new features and enhancements of the future PDF Maps releases will benefit the users of the NOAA charts.

Figure 2: Geographic Imager is Avenza’s spatial imaging toolset for Adobe Photoshop.

DM: The move to digital marine charts has been going on for some years and will take a few more, as this announcement attests. What is the next big change users should expect to see in these kinds of maps or the hardware and software that support them?

TF: It is very hard to see the future clearly but I think that some of the things we will definitely see are: faster, more robust and durable devices capable of rendering and using larger and more complex maps; devices with longer battery life and perhaps even solar powered ones to alleviate the problem I mentioned above; more intelligent maps that have underlying meta-data and layering that can be searched and invoked; multi-page maps (effectively digital atlases); and perhaps new form factors such as maps in watches or eyewear.

As well, we will likely see more frequent map updates, easier access to a wider variety of titles and possibly even more competition as the retail landscape changes to allow anyone and everyone to publish and distribute their maps.


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at