Ask those who know ECDIS (Electronic Chart Display and Information System). The whole thing has become too complicated, too unwieldy, too un-user friendly. There’s been grumbling all around, and not the least unhappy with the present state of ECDIS is Gert B. Büttgenbach. A retired nautical officer (master’s license obtained in 1983) with a background in computer science, Mr Büttgenbach has a mouthful to say. His opinions may be audacious but they’re hard to dismiss if only because they come from someone who helped design ECDIS.

In the late 1980s Mr Büttgenbach was involved in ECDIS research and development at the Institute of Ship Operation, Sea Transport and Simulation (ISSUS) in Hamburg. He served as technical manager of the German ECDIS trials from 1990 to 1991. The following year, he and his team developed the world’s first production environment for digital charts in S-57 format.

Mr Büttgenbach believes ECDIS has been made difficult by “political interests” at the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). “Tear it down to the fundamentals and start fresh before it causes chaos,” says he. His proposals for accomplishing this are both simple and radical. In his own words:

– Purge the IHO/IMO standards from all over-specific requirements that stifle innovation (screen size, user interface restrictions, soft & hard ware limitations)

– Make ENCs (Electronic Navigational Charts) free and strip them from “encryption”; this has nothing to do with safety – it is pure copyright protection, it serves the commercial interests of HOs and it is anachronistic. While Anonymous fights SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), PIPA (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act), and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) on world scale, the IHO insists on “chart permits”. Meanwhile the “mariner” in whose interest this allegedly happens tears his hair out.

– Put it on iPAD and make it intuitive. I have an Android phone in my pocket and it carries detailed digital charts of the whole world (thanks to Navionics). And it’s safer than all that bulky ECDIS stuff on the bridge (built-in backup battery, water proof hardware, shock-absorbing, embedded GPS, online updating when in coastal waters, fast zoom, crisp clear touch screen, you name it…).

– Encourage ENC production by establishing an international legal frame for commercial chart makers. Here is where IHO and IMO could meet the future.

If Mr Büttgenbach is able to get to the heart of the problem and speak his mind, it’s partly because he has no commercial interests to advance, no hidden agenda. He sold off his ECDIS software company, SevenCs, in 2005. On the other hand, he is under no illusion that introducing ECDIS reforms will be easy. “The window of opportunity,” he says, “seems to have closed since the sclerotic organizations ruling international shipping dislike reviewing the standards that I once helped to establish.” That’s a pity – and not least perhaps for the end-users of ECDIS. ~Barista Uno

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