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Looking out of the window

P8049657A concern commonly raised during discussions around electronic navigation systems is the way that they can contribute toward incidents. The scenarios usually revolve around lack of training and an over reliance on the computer software. In fact several grounding incidents have been directly attributed to this. In each case the ECDIS was not correctly set up for the conditions, presumably because it was not well understood. At the same time other more traditional approaches to navigation such as looking out of the window were being neglected. The inevitable result is a lot of unhappiness.

So what is really going on here? How come a system which is designed to make navigation safer is causing problems instead?

First off, we should probably assert that electronic chart systems are, for the most part, a big benefit. Very basic properties such as accuracy of positioning and ease of chart updating set such systems head and shoulders above paper charts. I can go on with a long list but you probably already know it. So where is the downside? At CherSoft, there are two issues that we are very aware of: first up the screen is not as big or clear as a paper chart, secondly the user interface can act as a barrier. Good software should be mitigating these issues by making optimal use of the screen real estate and by being easy to use. Obviously, if the software is easy to use then training is less of an issue.

But there is another angle to this.

A long time ago when Microsoft Word was a DOS application I was asked about how to set up the page layout. I had never looked at this at all before but I gave it a go and it only took a few minutes to get sorted. The secretary was impressed with my knowledge of Word. Of course I was actually making it up as I was going along but the results were fine so that didn’t matter. I’d never had any training on Word and I did not have a detailed knowledge of its settings. That was not so important because I did know the principles behind it and understood the general approach of the User Interface. My knowledge was to do with the domain rather than the details.

Understanding navigation systems is the core issue. Many systems, particularly the professional, type approved ones, are devilishly difficult to use. This may surprise you. Certainly if you had paid several thousands for a state of the art system then you might hope it would be quite approachable. The trouble is that not only are the User Interfaces, for the most part, quite primitive, but also the mechanisms around obtaining and updating charts tend to be complex. The latter is mostly associated with the dragon of Digital Rights Management. These factors mean that training, of necessity, has to be concerned with a lot of detail.

We think that the navigation system should be easy to use. It should be sufficiently easy to use that someone with knowledge of navigation and some elementary computer skills should be able to use it. I am not going to claim that Nuno™ achieves this yet, but it is what we are aiming for. This still leaves a gap though. It still leaves space for the fatal over-reliance on computers. Perhaps this is more of a cultural thing than a specific training issue. I suspect that the more you know about computers and their weaknesses then the less likely you are to drop unsuitable responsibility on one. Another way of looking at this is to consider that a computer, however clever it appears, is just a tool.

I think there needs to be convergence. The electronic tools should be useful without demanding specific knowledge. At the same time the limits of the tool should be understood at a domain level rather than in terms of the detail. My hope would be that the increasingly computer savvy people driving the ship will be using these tools so that they can spend more time looking out of the window rather than less.

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