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    NOAA’s Automated Distribution Infrastructure for Digital Charts

    LCDR Mark Wetzler1, Marc Higgins1, John Tucker1and Brad Christian2 1NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey and 2Rose Point Navigation Systems

    Abstract NOAA has developed a hardware and file infrastructure which allows third parties to build software that can automate the downloading of the current versions of NOAA’s digital nautical charts. The distribution infrastructure consists of three components: Three geographically separated and mirrored Web servers with high bandwidth connections to the internet; static links to NOAA chart files; and two eXtensible Markup Language (.XML) product catalogs—one for Electronic Navigational Charts (ENCs) and one for Raster Navigational Charts (RNCs). The product catalogs contain chart metadata, release dates and URL addresses of the static links for downloading the charts. Software applications can be developed that read the .XML product catalog files to determine the current status of charts available. This can be compared to the status of charts on a mariner’s system, and needed updates automatically determined for download to the mariner’s computer. Electronic Chart System (ECS) and Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) developers can build applications which automate the management of user chart suites thus enabling mariners to always have the current chart edition directly from NOAA. Today’s high bandwidth Internet connections via satellite, WiFi access at marinas, and cell tower connections allow for downloads to occur while at sea. NOAA produces, maintains and makes available for free distribution a suite of 671 ENCs and 1019 RNCs. During an average week there are 225 critical corrections applied to 55 ENCs and 115 RNCs. This large volume of updates makes it difficult for the user to manually maintain a local chart suite. A chart suite that is maintained in an automated fashion, with information downloaded directly from the hydrographic office, allows the user to effortlessly have the most current information. *Note—Any mention of a commercial product is for informational purposes and does not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Government or any of its employees or contractors. Introduction The foundation of the United States economy is the Marine Transportation System— the network of oceans, rivers, canals, locks, dams, ports, and aids to navigation. Shipping on these “marine highways” moves people and cargo around the country, and connects the US to global markets for international trade and affordable goods. The importance of these highways is significant. Roughly 15% of the United States Gross Domestic Product flows through the ports. Water born commerce in the U.S. is a $1 trillion industry. More than 78% of U.S. overseas trade by weight and 38% by value comes and goes by shipi. The Office of Coast Survey (OCS) is responsible for producing the suite of nautical charts that covers the coastal waters of the U.S. and its territories, in support of this vital waterborne commerce.

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    Other constituents who rely on the suite of nautical charts include the U.S. fisheries industry and recreational boaters. In 2006 alone the fishing industry generated $103 billion in sales, $44.3 billion in income and supported over 1.5 million jobs.ii The U.S. Coast Guard reported that there were 12,746,126 registered recreational boats in the U.S. in 2006.iii OCS is working to be the provider of choice for information needed for safe navigation and to expand its constituent base beyond the traditional navigation community.iv A methodology to realize these goals is to enhance the product distribution system thereby making products more readily available. This will result in increased breadth, speed, and frequency of chart dissemination. The automated distribution infrastructure described in this paper significantly enhances OCS’s current distribution mechanism by allowing third party programmers to directly access chart suite metadata and data. The end result is that the mariner will increase efficiency and improve navigational safety by always having the most recent digital chart edition aboard with minimal effort. Background In 2002 OCS began delivering ENCs to customers digitally with a commercially available Web based distribution package. The service was expanded in 2005 to include distribution of RNCs. The commercial interface was designed to meet the needs of the majority of customers by providing graphical and textual methods for selecting and downloading desired charts. The software was designed for manual selection and download of charts by individual users. No functionality for automated selection and download was available within the commercial package. Several times a year OCS would receive requests from customers, Web developers, and ECS programmers asking for chart metadata so that they could develop software or processes utilizing that metadata. From a review of customer inquiries it was clear that software developers who wanted to automate processes were not having their needs met with the commercial package and its manual selection and download interface. Simultaneously, OCS was also developing Continuity of Operations (COOP) plan. One aspect was to resolve how to continue chart distribution if the server for distributing charts was unavailable. By working with NOAA’s Web Operation Center (WOC) a simple COOP solution was implemented. Once a week all of the ENCs and RNCs were packaged into two .ZIP files, uploaded to the WOC and mirrored to three geographically separated servers that were publicly available. Over time it was found that many customers preferred this distribution mechanism over the existing Web based distribution package. This preference was due to its reliability, bandwidth and simplicity. Based upon customer requests and strategic evolution the WOC site ( evolved, but the basic requirement of simplicity was kept.

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    During a February 2006 visit from industry NOAA was requested to make metadata available to supplement product distribution. The recommendation was that metadata be placed in an .XML format and made available online. With customer requirements, robust Web distribution technology, and a metadata model to emulate, OCS began generating .XML files containing chart metadata in January of 2008. The project objective was to “Make up-to-date Nautical Chart System (NCS) data easily accessible to developers for reliable redistribution of chart products and services.”v In addition to the two full suite .ZIP files, the charts were prepackaged and made available as regional in individual .ZIP files. This increased flexibility for developing systems that automate download. Though the development of the infrastructure was not revolutionary, it is a strong example of evolution of a business model based on customer feedback, analysis of Web statistics, and appropriate use of Web technology. OCS Business Model for Digital Chart Product Distribution The new business model for chart product distribution is tiered based upon customer needs and skill levels. The automated distribution infrastructure is designed for advanced customers, i.e. developers and distributors. Table 1 portrays three tiers of OCS customers, by experience level, with corresponding links to the distribution mechanism.

    Digital Data Distribution Model

    Defining Characteristics Mechanism to Access Products Current URL

    Casual Customer

    Do not know what products are available. RNC Graphical User Interface (GUI)

    Might be interested in viewing one or two charts or downloading charts in a coverage area. Chart numbers do not mean much to this group. Geographic catalog is of the most value.

    ENC Graphical User Interface (GUI)

    Intermediate Customer Understand chart catalogs and chart numbers. Text Interface Want to download a set of charts for their local area. Text Interface

    GUI by State

    GUI by Coast Guard District

    Advanced Customer Want to automate download by checking .XML file. RNC Product Catalog

    Want to check to see most current product. ENC Product Catalog Want to develop a portfolio management system for their customers. Want to automate processing of chart information

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    Digital Data Distribution Model by Customer Skill Levels Table 1

    By expanding service to meet the needs of the advanced user in the OCS distribution business model, there are two positive outcomes: first, the end user has more options to access the data; and second, the data provided is directly from NOAA servers and is therefore the most current data available. The advanced users with direct access to the .XML files containing chart metadata are able to design products and services to meet their customers’ needs by simplifying the chart updating process. This is important because NOAA chart product information is dynamic and changes daily for the ENCs and weekly for the RNCs. The business model work flow for the advanced users is shown in Diagram 1 below. Fundamentally, data is generated and packaged within OCS and uploaded to the