A Global Current of Connected Ocean Data

The ocean connects all life on earth. Understanding the state of the ocean, predicting future conditions, and assessing the tradeoffs across ocean activities are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The ocean’s global importance expands its reach far beyond SDG14 - Life Below Water; small-scale fisheries feed coastal communities and provide more than 56 million jobs for women, while Blue Carbon plays a growing role in climate action. Achieving these goals requires an ocean data system as connected as the ocean itself.

Technology innovations mean we can collect as much data in a year of ocean sensing as in the past 100 years. But while the volume of ocean data production has increased, the rest of the data lifecycle has not kept up. Data must be transformed, analysed and used to be useful for policy making, monitoring, and accountability. More importantly, data must be shared across sectors and stakeholders in order for its potential to be fully realized. Lastly, data must be translated into actions, policies and narratives that resonate with individuals and societies who can take action.

With so many sectors tied to the ocean, data silos are common, even within the same geographies. Coastal cities, port authorities, and shipping companies may each have their own data systems, with little connectivity across them. Planning for sea level rise requires weaving together these public and private data streams, in addition to scientific research, other environmental monitoring data, and Indigenous knowledge. We need a robust, connected ocean data system to reimagine our coastlines and create future communities that are resilient, equitable, and economically vibrant.

We need to shift our mindset around ocean data to one of stewardship and reuse. Our data is our legacy, as much as any action, business target, or scientific journal article. That legacy is only improved by making data searchable by and accessible to others. The value of data does not diminish once used. Datasets can be re-used, re-purposed, combined or aggregated with different datasets to create value. Global Fishing Watch combines optical imagery, satellite radar, and ship location broadcasts to identify illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that threatens the ocean ecosystem and often correlates with human rights abuses.

We can also expand the ways we collect data to be more efficient and increase data fit for purpose. Cruise ships and fishing vessels can become research vessels of opportunity. Communities can share observations of ocean wildlife with global biodiversity databases. AI can be a powerful tool to unlock the ocean’s secrets but requires large volumes of labeled training data to be effective. Multi-institutional projects releasing high-quality imagery, like Fathomnet, offer the opportunity to discover the inner workings of the ocean’s smallest denizens. The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development offers a forum for new multi-stakeholder data partnerships in support of the SDGs.

There is no denying that there are significant challenges to improving ocean data-sharing. Many places lack basic connectivity infrastructure and we need to invest in data science and management capacity as part of reducing the digital divide. Common standards for ocean data and technology need to be more widespread, and the Ocean Best Practices System is working to disseminate them. Legal and policy barriers can prevent businesses and governments from sharing data, and overcoming those barriers often requires technical support to make sure access restrictions are properly executed. Entities contributing data must trust in the systems they connect to. Institutions like C4IR Ocean are working to tackle both data platforms and data sharing practices in order to liberate more ocean data. Scientists need to improve their own data literacy and partner with data management professionals as needed, to enable both researchers and data experts to maximize their contributions. Working in this collaborative way can improve not only data stewardship but also overall scientific impact.

2022 brings a number of opportunities to advance data connectivity for the ocean. February has both the Ocean Data Conference in Sopot, Poland and the ASLO/AGU Ocean Sciences Meeting in Hawaii, followed by the UN Ocean Conference in Portugal at the end of June. We hope that these events and others will highlight success stories for data sharing that bring on board companies, research institutions and private individuals to share data to help enable sustainable development. We also hope they offer opportunities for those working on other SDGs, who may not immediately identify as part of the ocean community, to see their connection to the sea. Civil society organisations and the technology collaborations they have formed have been instrumental in helping to demonstrate the value of data-sharing, particularly in the ocean context. These examples serve as lighthouses for other sectors that are looking to enable the sharing of data for the achievement of the SDGs.