We are experiencing a data revolution

Linwood Pendleton
December 19, 2019
Photo by Jeremy Bishop from Pexels

Even if you are well informed about the ocean, the rapid pace of ocean decline documented by the IPCC, IPBES, and Living Planet reports is hard to understand.

As fast as we are losing ocean species and ecosystem quality, we are gaining new knowledge about the ocean. The burgeoning 4th Industrial Revolution has already transformed our ability to observe the ocean, it’s life, and the people who use it.

  • We have more sensors than ever.

  • We are able to collect data at increasing frequency.

  • More and more scientists are being compelled by funders to share their data.

  • The number of ocean scientists, now broadly defined, has never been higher.

  • At the same time, we’ve developed new tools for exploring the sea. Gliders, ROVs, and mini-deep ocean submarines measure ocean conditions and scan the sea floor.

  • We can take nearly continuous images of the ocean’s surface, and use hyperspectral imagery to see below the surface.

  • We have cameras that document fish and bycatch as it’s brought onboard,

  • and petabytes of acoustic data measuring the sound of healthy ecosystems and the noise of an increasingly industrialized ocean.

But if all the new data and the troves of historic data can’t be harnessed to inform decision making, to help us plan for a sustainable future, what good is it?

Are we collecting the right data for decision-making? In the right places? At the right times? Are the people who are on the front lines of decision-making able to find these data and use them? Do enough people have access to the new techniques required to analyze these data? And are we developing new ways to visualize and analyze these data fast enough to keep pace with the rapid changes in ocean health caused by climate change and human uses?

The World Economic Forum, Friends of Ocean Action, REV Oceans, and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission all have highlighted many of these issues, each proposing an Ocean Data Platform as a possible solution to better connect data producers with users. The United Nations made a call for new ways of collecting and sharing data when it declared the UN Decade of Ocean Science that spells out the need for a transformation in the ocean data enterprise.

Today we find ourselves in a new Golden period of ocean data where there are grand hopes that we can harness this data revolution to save the ocean. Doing that, though, is going to require more than new tech. It’s going to require getting new people to the table, coming up with dramatically new ideas about how we measure and monitor the ocean, and changing the culture and mindset of who collects data, who owns it, how we share it, who gets to see it and use it, and how. Cross-sector learning, bringing data professionals from industry, finance, and sectors well beyond oceans will be key.

The process cannot be simply scaling up business as usual. While large institutional data producers continue to work to improve interoperability and standardization of traditional data streams, we have to encourage and support data entrepreneurs and innovators who are finding new ways of observing the ocean and who are doing so while working hand-in-hand with decision-makers, from individual consumers to government officials. Similarly, we need to urge and even catalyze ocean industries to share their data on ocean conditions, sea state, and even their own impacts on ocean ecosystems and health.

Many of these industries and data entrepreneurs do not or will not work within the molds of traditional best practice and standards. To make the most of this explosion of new data, we have to find post facto means of aligning and fusing data these non-institutional data sources so they complement and expand the more traditional sets of data we have. We need to find more active ways of getting these data out of silos and into the hands of those who need it for decision-making, whether that is to decide what to buy, where to fish, or how to manage the deep sea.

The Ocean Data Foundation is committed to creating new cultural and technological bridges to link:

  • the new 4th Industrial Revolution of ocean data production,

  • the traditional ocean data community, and

  • the new movement of ocean-aware decision-makers.

We will do this by developing a series of user-driven “use-cases,” that require novel fusions of traditional, novel, and experimental data for decision-makers grappling with some of the fast changing and most precarious marine ecosystems including coral reefs, the Arctic, and the high seas. By building these use cases on an open and transparent platform, sharing our experiences, code and data, we will test and catalyze new ways of linking a rapidly expanding world of ocean information with those who need it.

But that is just a start. We are building a community of data entrepreneurs, both users and producers. The Ocean Data Foundation already has leveraged philanthropic funding from the Resources Group, the data technology from Cognite - Norway’s fastest growing tech start-up, and the demonstrated need of groups like WWF, World Resources Institute, and Global Fishing Watch to begin to revolutionize how we give decision makers the data they need.

Now, we need you to help identify new use-case challenges, to share your experiences, and to develop your own use cases to help build this new digital ocean ecosystem.


Linwood Pendleton

Ocean Data Foundation

Conservation and Innovation Advisor, Global Lead Ocean Scientist (WWF), International Chair of Excellence (European Institute of Marine Studies) Brest area, France