BY BEN STEIN
On May 23rd Garmin shut down the old way of distributing ActiveCaptain (AC) data and turned on the new ActiveCaptain Community (ACC) servers. All the mobile apps, charting programs and MFDs programmed to work with AC stopped updating — and, in some cases, stopped showing AC points of interest (POIs) altogether — unless they had been newly modified for ACC. In the table below I’ve tried to show what’s going on, but you’ll see that the number of products currently able to display and edit ACC POIs is pretty small. Hopefully, more blue checks will soon be added, and that’s why this entry is definitely “subject to change.”
Before getting to the many details that go with the table, let me proclaim my own strong interest in ActiveCaptain applications and also describe what led up to the current situation.
Fourteen months of cruising in unfamiliar waters made me a believer in the value of the AC user community (before Garmin capitalized the ‘c’). Garmin BlueChart Mobile overlaid with AC POIs became an indispensable navigational tool at my helm. Because we were almost always in waters I hadn’t cruised before, the experience of others, shared via AC, helped guide us through sometimes challenging cruising. I experienced the great value of having AC information displayed in an easy-to-consume app.
As we’ve discussed previously, there has been plenty of confusion about changes to ActiveCaptain since Garmin’s acquisition. We learned that a change was required in order to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The AC application programming interface (API) — the mechanism used for exchanging AC data with apps and software packages — would be replaced with an ACC version able to support the more robust privacy controls GDPR requires. The new ACC API requires software developers to modify their code as well as accept new legal terms. Those new legal terms may present challenges to existing and potential ACC partner developers.
Meanwhile, Garmin improved access to ACC with an important change to the ACC API. Previously any interaction with the AC database required logging in. So, to download the POI database you had to provide your AC username and password. Now, an app can let you view the ACC database without logging in (“ACC Display” in the table above)! Authentication is only required to add, edit or delete POIs (“ACC Editing “in the table above). I think this is an important change and one that may well significantly increase the use of the ACC data. If managing accounts isn’t required to download the data users are more likely to have current data available on their apps. Each positive experience a user has with ACC makes them more likley to contribute to the data they’re using. The strength of any crowd-sourced data comes from use and updates of the data. I like the change Garmin has made here and hope it will help contribute to more frequent updates.
Options with ACC Support
Aqua Map has worked quickly to make the needed updates to their iOS application to support the new ACC API. Garmin rolled out their changes later in the day on 5/23 and by the next morning Aqua Map announced on the ActiveCaptain Facebook group they had released an update to the application to support the new API. The initial support was for display only which doesn’t require login. Since then another iOS app update has been released that includes support for logging into the API and adding ratings and reviews. The next update will allow making additions and edits to the data. Aqua Map expects to release a version of the Android app with full ACC support in the near future.
According to Garmin BlueChart Mobile will be able to display the new ACC data. Garmin Announced in the fall of 2017 that BlueChart Mobile was being discontinued, but users would continue to be able to use the charts they’d already purchased. After the release of the new API Garmin published the Q&A above stating BCM would be able to display ACC data. Surprised by this answer, I emailed Ken Cirillo of Garmin who confirmed this is correct. It turns out Garmin has always received the data from the ActiveCaptain servers and reformatted it for their applications. Because Garmin was an intermediary they are able to reformat the new data format and provide it to BCM. If you haven’t already downloaded BCM this won’t help you as the product remains discontinued. Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been able to get this to work, Garmin says they’re aware of the issue and expect to have it fixed very shortly.
Rose Point Navigation completed the software development work on Coastal Explorer needed for the new API prior to Garmin’s 5/23 roll-out and released version 4.0.18142. Coastal Explorer fully supports ACC with data downloading, editing and deletion all covered. Edits can be made offline and synced to ACC the next time Coastal Explorer is connected to the internet and synchronized. Ben Ellison made several of the edits to ACC he describes in his piece on ACC’s new website via CE’s new ACC integration.
It’s a safe bet that Garmin is going to do everything they can to make sure a product that carries the ActiveCaptain name will support ACC data. There have been some reports of difficulty syncing shortly after the rollout of the new API but Garmin fully intends to support ACC on the ActiveCaptain app. Owners of Garmin MFDs can use the “Sync & Navigate” button shown on the top right of the Pequonnock Yacht Club POI above to have the ActiveCaptain app work with their MFD to route right to the point. The “Edit” button above takes you to the ACC website so an internet connection is required to make edits using GAC. A quick reminder because there has been some confusion about the intent of the app. This product is intended to be a companion app for owners of Garmin MFDs –if you own a Garmin MFD charts are free, if you don’t they’re pretty expensive– so, it’s likely if you’re looking for a standalone app to display ACC data there might be better bets.
Nobeltec’s CTO, Iker Pryszo, says they plan a staged roll-out of their software products with support for display only coming first followed by an update to allow editing. Nobeltec notes that the new API requires users login to their Garmin account via a web page launched within TimeZero and that’s not something that integrates well with their application. Ben Ellison’s testing of TimeZero found that after the 5/23 change to the ACC API updates are failing (which is expected) and that he now gets a message to login to ActiveCaptain when tries to view any AC POIs (I don’t believe that was expected).
No plans for support
The products in this section have announced they don’t currently have plans to support the new ACC API. Some of these developers have publicly stated they’re considering support while others have been more final in their announcements. I think these developers do deserve some credit for clearly communicating their intent to their users.
Garmin has removed ACC support from HomePort and published a support article pointing users towards the ACC website. For those who used HomePort for route planning the ACC website won’t be a suitable replacement until Garmin brings back the route features to ACC.
C-Map has announced they will no longer support ACC data in Plan2Nav. C-Map has published a statementsimply stating, “…we had to make the difficult decision to no longer include Active Captain data in our offering.”
For many, Polar Navy broke the news about the changing ACC API when they made this announcement: “We have been notified by Garmin, owners of ActiveCaptain, that ActiveCaptain data access will be discontinued on May 23, 2018.” It turns out that really wasn’t the whole story, but Polar Navy hasn’t changed their stance and continue to state they won’t be implementing the new API.
SeaIQ has gone a slightly different direction. They’ve added support for Waterway Guide’s POIs to either augment or replace the ACC POIs. They’ve said, “We are considering updating SEAiq support for ActiveCaptain but do not have definite plans yet.” Until they decide differently downloading of ACC data stopped working on 5/23/18. We’ll keep an eye on announcements from SeaIQ to see if they decide to add support back to the app.
Wrapping it up
I’ve been a part of many similar API rollouts in different industries. The approach Garmin has employed isn’t the preferred method of rolling-out of a new API. Ideally, the new API would be released in a testing or staging environment for a couple of months or longer. Once successfully proven in a non-production environment it would be moved to the production environment and run in parallel for several more months. This would allow the transition to the new API to happen in a smooth manner with an easy rollback in the event of troubles. I suspect Garmin didn’t have that option because of the hard deadline GDPR presents, the amount of development required, and the relatively late start they got having purchased ActiveCaptain right around a year before the GDPR deadline.
The new ACC API has been released for about a week and much of that time was the Memorial Day holiday weeekend in the U.S.. I’m hopeful that over the coming weeks and months we will see the ranks of apps supporting ACC data swell. The two packages fully supporting ACC data, Aqua Map and Coastal Explorer, are two very strong offerings and if your needs include immediate support of ACC data I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them both. If your current app of choice doesn’t currently support ACC data I believe there’s reason for optimism. The entire community has been waiting to see what Garmin will do with ActiveCaptain Community. It appears to me they’ve shown they’re committed to the product and with the decision to allow data to be downloaded without any login they’ve made it easier to get and use ACC data.
We will keep watching the ACC partners for news of additional support for the new API. I plan to update this article as other apps add support.