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Data Can Help Heal the Ocean – if We Can Collect Enough of It

Scientists, governments and businesses are amassing unprecedented amounts of ocean data. But if marine ecosystems are to survive, we need to figure out how to get a lot more, say Nishan Degnarain and Steve Adler.

Written by Steve Adler, Nishan Degnarain Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Scientists Sergei Klimov and Andrei Lebedev collect seawater samples in Onega Bay in the White Sea near Gluboky Cape.AFP Images, Vladimir Trefilov/Sputnik

We have collected more data on our oceans in the past two years than in the history of the planet.

There has been a proliferation of remote and near sensors above, on and beneath the oceans. New low-cost micro satellites ring the Earth and can record what happens below daily. Thousands of tidal buoys follow currents transmitting ocean temperature, salinity, acidity and current speed every minute. Undersea autonomous drones photograph and map the continental shelf and seabed, explore deep sea volcanic vents and can help discover mineral and rare earth deposits.

The volume, diversity and frequency of data is increasing as the cost of sensors fall, new low-cost satellites are launched and an emerging drone sector begins to offer new insights into our oceans. In addition, new processing capabilities are enhancing the value we receive from such data on the biological, physical and chemical properties of our oceans.

Yet it is not enough.

We need much more data at higher frequency, quality and variety to understand our oceans to the degree we already understand the land. Less than 5 percent of the oceans are comprehensively monitored. We need more data collection capacity to unlock the sustainable development potential of the oceans and protect critical ecosystems.

More data from satellites will help identify illegal fishing activity, track plastic pollution and detect whales and prevent vessel collisions. More data will help speed the placement of offshore wind and tide farms, improve vessel telematics, develop smart aquaculture, protect urban coastal zones and enhance coastal tourism.

Unlocking the Ocean Data Market

But we’re not there yet.

This new wave of data innovation is constrained by inadequate data supply, demand and governance. The supply of existing ocean data is locked by paper records, old formats, proprietary archives, inadequate infrastructure and scarce ocean data skills and capacity.

The market for ocean observation is driven by science and science isn’t adequately funded.

To unlock future commercial potential, new financing mechanisms are needed to create market demand that will stimulate greater investments in new ocean data collection, innovation and capacity.

Efforts such as the Financial Stability Board’s Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure have gone some way to raise awareness and create demand for such ocean-related climate risk data.

Much data that is produced is collected by nations, universities and research organizations, NGOs and the private sector, but only a small percentage is open data and widely available.

Data creates more value when it is widely utilized and well governed. Helping organize to improve data infrastructure, quality, integrity and availability is a requirement for achieving new ocean data-driven business models and markets. New ocean data governance models, standards, platforms and skills are urgently needed to stimulate new market demand for innovation and sustainable development.

Whereas historically much ocean data was collected by high-cost government-backed space and oceanographic institutions, many of the new collectors and users of data are from the private sector. As new private providers are emerging, the range of platforms, standards and protocols is also rapidly increasing.

This is not just an environmental or data governance issue but also an economic and equity issue, too.

Many small, low-income island states have large ocean areas to govern. Often they have very few patrol boats to survey areas that could be the size of Western Europe. Data and new technologies are critical in enabling these countries to fully command their oceans.

As more private operators enter the market, there is a risk that much of this data becomes privatized, placing them out of the reach of many regulators in small island states, the United Nations, universities and many other interested parties.

The GAVI Model

Scientist Sergei Klimov sets up a sample probe on the coast of Onega Bay in the White Sea near Gluboky Cape. (AFP Images, Vladimir Trefilov/Sputnik)

A new public-private partnership is needed to stimulate market demand for much more ocean data that is open, well governed and widely utilized.

There are models from other sectors where this has been done successfully.

Childhood vaccines is an example where a public-private partnership identified the need and collected data about childhood health conditions across the developing world to stimulate the supply and distribution of much-needed vaccinations.

Pharmaceutical companies held intellectual property of various vaccines and the World Health Organization saw the need for large-scale childhood immunization in many low-income areas of the world.

However, it took the innovative public-private partnership of GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) to catalyze the private sector to share their intellectual property. It ensured the right governance to develop early childhood immunization programs in low-income countries, in partnership with wealthy and poor countries, NGOs, the private sector and strong leadership from a few committed leaders.

An ‘ICANN’ for Our Oceans?

In order to unleash the full power of ocean data, new distributed models of data collection, linkage and use are needed.

While coastal nations control vast areas of the ocean in their territorial waters, much of the ocean remains international and ungoverned. Here, public and private interests for marine ecology and sustainable development can be mutually satisfied with inclusive governance models that share information and promote commercial interests consistent with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

One example of an international governance body that balances public and private interest is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which was created to ensure the stable operation of the internet for the public good. It has some clear principles, such as “net neutrality” and interoperability of IP addresses to ensure the internet continues being a public service, accessible in almost all countries in the world.

As a public-private body, with representatives from the private sector, governments, developers and NGOs, ICANN helps ensure a stable operating environment, and other topics such as standard setting are discussed in several supporting bodies.

Could we see a body such as ICANN being created for oceanic data?

What is clear is that no one entity can do this alone.

Our oceans are under severe duress and require our urgent attention before we cross irreversible tipping points. If we are to succeed in time, we need a bold and truly game-changing alliance of public and private actors. They will also need to find innovative models to fund and operate the investment required to fully monitor our oceans.

The technology exists today, but the question is whether we are able to mobilize swiftly enough and act in time.

This article originally appeared on World Economic Forum.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Oceans Deeply.

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