Here are a couple of thoughts:
1. Most National Hydrographic Offices, and hence the government behind them, make some sort of assurance or even guarantee about the quality of their charts.
2. Electronic (ENC) charts are generally considered to be an improvement over paper charts. It is easier to be more accurate in using them and updating them for example.
Putting these two assertions together you might be tempted to think that the governments can now make and even stronger statement as to the reliability of their chart data. However scratch under the surface a little bit and this notion can come unstuck.
There are some fundamental differences between paper and vector charts; here I am just going to focus on display options. Paper charts don’t really have any, vector charts have lots. With a traditional paper chart the choice as to exactly what goes onto the chart and how it is displayed is determined by a cartographer (chart compiler). So when the chart is published it can come with as assurance about the accuracy of the data and (this is the important point so pay attention) exactly what the chart looks like. Two skippers in completely different vessels with totally different equipment will be looking at exactly the same image.
With ENC charts, the data will be just as accurate but control over the image has been diluted. If we were to compare several different types of chart viewer using the same data, showing the same area at the same scale then chances are that they would show a different image. Sure they would all be similar but sometimes the devil really is in the detail. In fact (I can already hear the pedants) if you were to try and match the display settings on each of these units them you would still find that there were some differences between the images.
The starting point of this problem is that there is too much data to display. There are some 180 different classes of symbol which are arranged into groups. 20 of these groups must always be displayed and 90 are optional. Of the optional groups 51 are normally visible, switched on and the remaining 39 are usually switched off. Ok – so if you are worried about switching something off that you should really be displaying then you might consider simply switching everything on. Here is what it looks like:
On the left is the paper chart and on the right that nasty mess is all the ENC data. These two charts are intended to tell you the same thing so clearly this is sub-optimal. There is too much clutter on the vector display – something will have to go. In fact clutter is possibly the biggest problem with ENC data. So, you need to switch some stuff off – but what? Actually doesn’t it strike you as odd that right out of the box this chart is virtually unusable and so things have to be switched off? When are these things ever going to be switched on and why? How are you going to decide what should be on or off? This is the crunch; there is no easy way. I guess you could read a manual, learn about S52 viewing groups, brush up on cartography and give it a stab but that is actually quite a tall order. It is quite a lot to expect of your average mariner before they can use and electronic chart. It is also a moving target. You may well get the display looking just so but as soon as you start changing scales it can all go a bit pear shaped and if you use charts from a different producer then all bets are off. With paper charts you need to learn what they mean, with ENC you need to first decide what they should look like.
In all probability what you are really going to do is to take some reasonable default values. Fiddle with anything that you can understand and stop once you have a half decent display. This is a quite rational approach and this is one reason why all the ENC displays mentioned above are going to look different. There are many other reasons and these can rapidly get very technical but I hope you are getting the gist of this now. So the chart data may all be reliably accurate in line with the assurances of the Hydrographic Office but that is not going to help if the thing you just hit was not being displayed on the chart.
With Nuno we have taken the fairly pragmatic approach that the skipper is more likely to be interested in the chart as a navigation aid rather than a computer game. To this end we have attempted, to the best of our ten years’ experience in messing with ENC data, to make the chart display just work. There is a lot of clever stuff involving dynamic positioning of symbols, subtle re-scaling, jiggling labels around, changing fonts, adjusting for display scale, merging multiple cells and so on. The end result is a half decent chart display with very little messing around. It is all on the chart, well apart from one switch which we have termed anchoring mode. This enables additional data to be displayed in a way that would be appropriate if you were looking for somewhere to tie up. So this switches sounding, bottom type and some other stuff on. This is a feature in the new version of Nuno and it is coming very soon now.