We Need More Ocean Data

Steven B. Adler, Andrew Hudson and Dr. David Vousden

Dr. David Vousden

Dr. Steven Adler

For hundreds of years, vast amounts of wealth have been extracted from the ocean without knowing much about the ecosystems that provide such bounty. To fill this gap—and sustain the ocean and the people that rely on it to feed their families and support their livelihoods—the world needs more ocean data. And we need it now.

The ocean represents most of Earth’s surface and living space—but is the least explored part of our planet. Improved monitoring, reporting and analysis of ocean data will enable improved daily understanding of what is happening on the surface, below the waves and on the seafloor, and what is happening chemically, biologically and physically. It will also help to catalog our impact, change our behavior and increase the ocean’s sustainable economic potential.
The Ocean Data Alliance, a consortium of private and public entities, represents a first step. We envision a future in which 24/7 ocean observation, data collection, distribution and analysis provide a daily “ocean census” for improved management and decision making in the sustainable use of marine habitats, ecosystems and resources. Leveraging improved ocean data could enable the identification of new ocean uses that create or expand economic sectors and create new jobs. To accomplish this vision, three things are needed.

The first is coordination; coordination and collaboration among ocean data scientists, maritime industries, governments, United Nations agencies and NGOs on common ocean data protocols and standards for the classification and description of ocean biology, chemistry, physics and geology. Data standards take years to develop, and often the best standards languish with delayed market adoption. In the new world of “The Cloud,” it is possible to leave data at its source, harmonize it with a digital thesaurus, dynamically link the sources, and curate it all for improved quality, accessibility and purpose.

The second is open data. A self-governing commons approach to ocean data can transform every data source into a globally relevant contribution to the sustainable development of ocean resources. That approach would treat every data contributor as a data steward, with reciprocal rights for data curation, attribution, security and revenue recognition from derivative works. With technologies like blockchain, it is possible to reward data collection with royalties generated from derivative works, data analytics and data product development, and thereby create a completely new market for ocean data with tremendous benefits for data producers, consumers and intermediaries alike.
The third is market development. The creation of a new Ocean Data Facility financial mechanism will stimulate market demand for ocean observation technology and data to catalytically increase ocean data capabilities, needs and revenue, and serve as proof of concept. The facility would accelerate needed investments in ocean data collection and stimulate the development of new surface, deep-ocean and seafloor data-gathering and management technologies. It would set up geospatial Ocean Data Hubs (ODH) for participating nations, who would develop local data demand, skill and capacity for collecting, analyzing and using open ocean data. Open ODH could be established to perform similar functions for the high seas, oceanic regions beyond national jurisdiction that account for nearly half of the planet.

All of this would require significant new ocean observation technologies and data, leadership at the international level, and new forums for coordination and collaboration between established and new stakeholders.
We all must do this with an urgency and purpose because our seas are rising, warming and acidifying, fish stocks and coastal habitats are under stress, and, as underscored by the Ocean Sustainable Development Goal 14, we have about 10 to 15 years to get a lot of things right before potential ocean “tipping points” might be reached.

Work is already underway to implement this new vision for ocean data. For example, the Agulhas and Somali Large Marine Ecosystems project supported nine African and Indian Ocean countries in an intensive data-gathering exercise between 2007 and 2014. Supported through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and financed through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), this effort dramatically increased understanding of the biological, physical and chemical functioning of this economically significant ecosystem.

To save our ocean and our planet, innovative new financial mechanisms must be developed for ocean data, and new technologies must harmonize how we use the data without changing the way we work. New ocean governance models can be created to spread opportunity and democratize access to critical information. Done together, we can monitor our ocean and better forecast and plan sustainable development in the future


Dr. Steven Adler was the chief data strategist for IBM from 2012 to 2017. His data strategies have yielded new products, services and market strategies. Dr. Andrew Hudson (pictured) heads UNDP’s Water & Ocean Governance Programme with a global portfolio of $200 million. Dr. David Vousden is a professor at Rhodes University, South Africa, with expertise in marine ecosystem management and ocean governance.



Getting Ready for the Next Wave: The Digital Future

Stuart Nicholls

In a recent report, McKinsey looked at the prospects for the next 50 years of cargo shipping, marking 50 years since it first reported on the potential impact of shipping containers on the industry. The new report predicts that digitalization and the use of big data in shipping will be just as disruptive to the market as the introduction of containers was in 1967: “Advances in the use of data and analytics will bring further step changes in productivity. Shipping companies could heed the example of today’s state-of-the-art aircraft, which generate up to a terabyte of data per flight. Coupled with the introduction of more sensors, the better usage of the data that ships and containers generate would allow enhancements such as optimizing voyages in real time (by taking into account weather, currents, traffic and other externalfactors), smarter stowage and terminal operations and predictive maintenance. Data could also improve the coordination of arrivals at port—a major benefit, since 48 percent of container ships arrive more than 12 hours behind schedule, thus wasting the carriers’ fuel and underutilising the terminal operators’ labour and quay space.”

The shipping industry is keenly aware of the need for digitalization, and the potential risks for those who fail to keep up. Recently, ex-DVB bank shipping boss Dagfinn Lunde warned that there is a “digital tsunami” on the horizon that threatens to “wipe out” owners and banks who ignore the effect of digitalization on the maritime industry. This state of affairs can lead to a rush for some to digitize everything possible—and others to bury their heads in the sand and hope it all goes away.

Instead, we at StratumFive argue that while it’s necessary to embrace digitalization, there’s no need to rush blindly toward it. What’s needed is a pragmatic approach. One that looks at maximizing the benefit to seafarers and to the owners and operators who support them, and focusing on the elements that make the biggest difference to the voyage, e.g., voyage monitoring systems that provide weather, security and navigational data. Such systems give owners, operators and shore crew the most accurate picture of where their ship is and what it’s doing. This minimizes the risk from adverse situations, such as storms or piracy, and makes sure the voyage is as efficient and safe as possible.

Companies looking to capitalize on digitalization should focus on giving users the biggest “bang for their buck,” delivering the most value in terms of the impact of the data available for analysis. Weather and navigation are among the biggest factors here. No matter how well optimized a vessel’s engine or trim might be, if you can’t avoid adverse weather or risky situations, this becomes obsolete. Systems that allow hyperaccurate monitoring and analysis of the minutiae of vessel performance are important, but to answer the most pressing questions that seafarers and shipowners have, we need to focus on the bigger picture.

The next phase in the development journey should be to use data sets to build predictive models, using machine learning techniques, based on analytics and data from past voyages. We can already see the examples of this analytical ability in the field of security. One such example is interactive heat maps that highlight the relative risks of piracy in different areas. Using this methodology can find relationships that might otherwise seem counterintuitive. For instance, one might guess that light levels, speed and weather will play a part—but not the day of the week. As it turns out, the risk of piracy is actually higher on certain days. In Somalia, Fridays are days of prayer. Pirates can be divided into two groups: less experienced, opportunistic “part-time” pirates and hardened “professional” pirates. The former group will observe their holy days, while the latter will venture out regardless. So, if a pirate attack occurs on a Friday, it is more likely to result in a hijacking.

This exemplifies a crucial advantage of big data and machine learning. As in all things in shipping, data platforms need to expect the unexpected. The goal should be to create open solutions that can efficiently index and leverage data from a variety of sources. This means we can find and use links between departments and data sets that might not be obvious at the outset, bringing together more data sets to come up with new solutions. This requires us to be bold and adventurous when working with partners. We need to share data. In reality, maintaining a data silo for fear of the competition benefits no one, and, in fact, can have a negative impact on commercial success. With a collective experience that spans decades at sea, and in the fields of meteorology, software development and data science, it’s clear we need to work in a way that enhances good seamanship. At the outset, digital solutions providers need to listen; to ask what shipping and seafarers need to know, rather than creating solutions in search of problems. Through listening, and adopting a pragmatic approach, shipping can master big data and digitalization, rather than drown in their wave.