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Navionics ‘crowd sources’ with new app

NewsStand allows boaters to read articles that are geo-referenced to popular cruising areas


Like the Internet in the 1990s, smart phone applications are quickly changing the way we interact with the world.

Urbanspoon, for example, asks users of its app to let it track their locations through the GPS on their phones. Then, with a touch of the screen, it displays all restaurants in that area, allowing subscribers to narrow their choices by cuisine type, price and location. Another app, Waze, allows users to update traffic in real time so other users are aware of snarls as they occur and what is causing them. It offers alternative routes so other drivers can avoid the backups.

The more users these apps have, the more potential value they bring to other users, who can benefit from photos, information or reviews that will help them make informed choices — whether it’s about where they will eat dinner or which route they’ll take home from work. The buzzword for this type of information sharing via apps is “crowd sourcing.”

The marine industry has been dipping its toes into app waters for some time, but as with all apps, the concepts are constantly evolving to integrate the most useful and relevant data possible for users.

Extending the adventure

Navionics, a Wareham, Mass.-based electronic charts company, is not new to apps, and it is aware that features need to evolve to keep users interested.

“What we’ve tried to do is build features that extend navigational tools beyond the boat while not duplicating what is already there,” says Don Black, global vice president of sales and marketing. “Our belief was that our boating customer spent, if they’re lucky, around 100 hours a year on the water and around 2,000 hours a year thinking about being on the water. We were looking to extend that marine adventure beyond the boat.”

The latest edition of the Navionics app includes NewsStand, which features stories from partner publications in plain text and the original print layout with photos. The stories can be geo-referenced to popular areas and are searchable by keyword, category, author or publication.

“There are lots of people on land that are playing with the product, doing a lot of dreaming and adventure planning,” Black says. So if a user is fantasizing about a fishing trip off Belize, for example, and panning the area on the Navionics app, geo-referenced articles will pop up from within a 500-mile radius, Black says.

Although the Navionics app is available for the Android and Apple iPhone/iPad platforms, the NewsStand feature currently is available only on the Apple platform. The articles are free because of Apple’s complex pricing system, Black says, but Navionics expects to work out a pricing structure in the future.

The company is giving contributors a link to their websites and asks the contributors to reciprocate for Navionics, Black says. “One of our partners, when you look at their table of contents, we have a logo maybe a little bigger than a Facebook logo for Navionics,” he says. “That’s all we request. We’re pushing people to your magazine, publication or website, and we’re expecting you to push people back here.”

With hundreds of thousands of Navionics app users worldwide, the traffic generated should make article sharing worthwhile for the contributor, Black says. By the end of this year, Navionics plans to have all articles accessible in at least seven languages, he says. (Trade Only’s sister magazine, Soundings, is now a partner on the Navionics NewsStand.)

Crowd sourcing

Registered app users can access vector charts from around the globe and can plug in new navigational information — for example, a wreck that is obscured during high tide — so other boaters are aware of the hazard. This type of collaboration is an example of crowd sourcing, says Peter Swanson, electronics editor for PassageMaker magazine (also owned by Trade Only’s parent company, Active Interest Media). The NewsStand feature falls under the “point of interest” category, he says. To add features, the user must be registered so Navionics can trace consistent inaccuracies and block that person from modifying charts.

“You can play around and say, ‘This is where I want to go,’ ” Black says. “And not only can you track where you’ve been, but you can take pictures of fish or scenery, and it’s all geo-referenced so once you get back to civilization you can share it with your friends.”

With 7,500 connections on the Navionics Facebook page, many update directly to the social networking site so others can see where they’ve been, Black says.

Sync features


Boaters can sync the app with their plotters on board and with home equipment as well. “You can plan out your route at home and go sync it when you get to the boat,” Black says. “We’re trying to close the loop. It’s meant to have a fun function, but the reality of it is, once you do all that play and planning, you ought to be able to get it on your boat.”

As I chatted with Black from a neighborhood public beach, I was surprised to see a notation of the small ramp for non-motorized boats already on the chart. I plotted a trip from Boston to Portsmouth, N.H., stopping at Cape Cod and some area islands along the way. I was able to pull up such information as wind direction and strength, and tide charts in real time, for each destination, and I could peg as many favorites as I wanted. At NewsStand, users can browse popular articles, browse by location or category or search by keywords.

Vector advantage

There are other navigation apps available, but Navionics rates in the top 10 worldwide, Black says, and has won several innovation and electronics awards. Part of that is because the app uses vector rather than raster charts.

Electronically speaking, charts fall into those two categories, Swanson says. Raster charts are essentially scanned paper charts that are displayed digitally on your device, he says. Vector charts take the data that the paper chart is based upon and re-create it.

That means when a user zooms in and out of the chart on an iPad or smart phone, the information is updated to scale and soundings numbers stay accurate. When zooming in and out on a raster chart, the chart simply becomes larger because the scanned image picture has been magnified, Swanson says.

“You can rescale it and connect two [vector] charts seamlessly,” he says. “It builds the chart from the data up, rather than from the image. That’s a better product for an electronic device, especially a small one like my phone.”

One of Navionics’ competitors also offers vector charts, but many of them rely on raster charts, Swanson says. That said, each competitor has carved out its own niche and provides some nuance of difference and value to consumers, he points out.

“These are real charts,” Black says. “I think that’s one of the most precious things about this app.” However, Navionics looks at the app as a complement to navigational devices already on board, not a substitute, he says.

“But you could certainly use it by itself if you needed to,” Swanson says.

The Navionics app now covers a larger geographic area and combines marine (saltwater) and lake data, according to Christine Gelinas, a Navionics spokeswoman. “Before, it consisted of several apps which needed to be purchased separately,” Gelinas says. “Now with this new app, which includes all of U.S. marine and lakes, a user is able to connect to our server and download the area of choice.”

If a user wants to include Canada with the United States, the app costs about $5 more. For Mexico, a separate app — the Caribbean and South America — is needed. There are eight apps, down from the previous 29, in Navionics’ worldwide coverage.

The new system also makes the concept of user-generated content (crowd sourcing) all that much more impactful because users have access to updates continuously, Gelinas says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.



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