Nautical charts on demand

Even the least experienced sailor knows that having an accurate, current

map of the waterways is essential for safe travel.

To this end, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office

of Coast Survey is developing a new electronic commerce and print-on-demand

system that will enable retail stores to order the most up-to-date nautical

charts online.

Retailers, called chart agents, will log on to the system using a World

Wide Web browser to order custom copies of maps. The system will send order

information to a print-on-demand system that will print out the most current

map information, including where navigation aids are located, characteristics

of coastlines, water depths and navigation hazards.

The charts will be printed from digital files when they are ordered

and placed in the mail for overnight delivery to the store or even directly

to boaters. Payment and billing will be handled offline between the chart

agents and the printer. The e-commerce system will enable NOAA to customize

charts for different buyers for the first time. For example, a customer

can ask for a chart that has specific information about the location of

a pipeline.

"The real thing that is motivating us is service," said David Enabnit,

technical director at NOAA's Office of Coast Survey. "Up-to-date information

is critical for safe navigation in waterways."

Currently, the Office of Coast Survey takes a one-size-fits-all approach

to its mapmaking. The office updates and prints nautical charts in batches,

places them in storage and then sends them to about 1,300 chart agents who

sell them in retail stores. NOAA updates critical information on its nautical

maps weekly, but maps in inventory are 1 to 3 years old.

"If a chart agent orders a nautical chart, they won't have to worry about

getting an older one from inventory; they'll get the one that's most up

to date," said Joseph Linza, vice president of Software Performance Systems

Inc.'s Strategic Solutions Division, which is building the e-commerce system

for NOAA. Some chart agents even have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth

of charts in their own inventory, he added. This approach will significantly

reduce those retailers' inventories and save them money by allowing them

to order online what they need, as they need it.

The system will act as a bridge between the chart agents and the print-on-demand

system, Linza said. The agency received $415,000 from the Federal Information

Technology Innovation Fund to build the system. The fund was established

to provide seed money for innovative agency projects.

The system, which is in development, will use a Java-based architecture.

It will run on a Linux server that will be located at an Internet service

provider's facility so that it can have a direct connection to the Internet.

SPS will manage the system remotely, which is one reason the company chose

Linux.

"Since we can't [be there physically to] push a reboot button, we decided

to use Linux because we felt it was more efficient for us to maintain remotely

for this size project," Linza said.

SPS has not decided which ISP it will use or whether the company will

supply its own server hardware or use the ISP's server hardware, Linza said.

SPS is looking for numerous requirements, including reliability.

The e-commerce system will send print orders electronically to Vomela

Co. in St. Paul, Minn., which will produce the charts with an electrostatic

printer and then mail them to stores or directly to boaters.

NOAA plans to pilot the system in April with about 41 chart agents and

roll it out for production use later this year. SPS hopes to eventually

offer a subscription service to enable mariners to order an entire chart

portfolio from a chart agent, and may even send digital copies of maps to

users. "Mariners will begin to treat this as another professional tool and

buy it as a service," Enabnit said. "The [e-commerce] system enables that."

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