The Platform Aiming to Open Up Ocean Data to All

Carolyn Savoldelli, a research analyst for the World Resources Institute, explains her group’s effort to curate, decipher and connect a growing amount of open ocean data to aid scientists and policymakers.

Written by Lindsay Abrams Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
NASA’s aerial and satellite imagery is a valuable open data source for researchers.Mario Tama/Getty Images

If those working to protect the world’s ecosystems are to make informed decisions, they need trustworthy and accessible data.

It was with this in mind that earlier this year, the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, launched Resource Watch, a collection of open-source data sets and visualizations covering a range of environmental and social issues, including ocean topics such as coral bleaching and commercial shipping.

Carolyn Savoldelli, a research analyst at WRI, hopes easier access to data will help better inform governments, researchers and advocates and that journalists could use the near real-time information – such as on oil and chemical spill incidents or Arctic sea ice extent – in their reporting. Oceans Deeply spoke to Savoldelli about making sense of the growing amount of open data sources for the ocean.

Oceans Deeply: How did Resource Watch come about?

Carolyn Savoldelli: The mission of the platform is to provide trusted and timely data for a sustainable future. It came out of the acknowledgment of three crucial tipping points that are happening right now.

The first is that we’re at an unprecedented moment where views are increasingly polarized, false information is spread and facts are being undermined. Decision-makers want access to the data they need to make the right choices for environmental and social issues. Acknowledging that need for good trustworthy data was a big motivator for the platform.

The second is that we’re at this incredible time for open data. Being able to take that deluge of data and not drown in it, and let ourselves find the key inputs for decision-makers, was certainly something that we wanted to try to address.

Finally, we saw that there’s a lot of great data on the forests or water or oceans or climate, but it was at risk of being siloed, when truly they’re interconnected issues.

Oceans Deeply: How would you describe the state of ocean data as it exists right now?

Savoldelli: We’re seeing this boom in climate change-related ocean data. There’s some really incredible stuff happening at NOAA and NASA and these institutions that have really fine-tuned satellite imagery for oceans issues, whether that’s water quality or salinity or sea surface temperature. However, because it is this vast resource that is extremely complicated and difficult to measure, there are still huge gaps in our understanding.

The other component is the accessibility of data. Resource Watch is trying to bring out some of the closed data, whether it’s behind a paywall or it’s hidden on some researcher’s computer somewhere without public access. One example of that is a sea level rise data set from our partners at Climate Central. They do make their data available, but we wanted to bring it to a new platform, to get new users involved in it and make it more accessible broadly.

Oceans Deeply: Can you highlight some ocean data sets that you’d encourage researchers to take a look at?

Savoldelli: One of the cool things you can do with Resource Watch has to do with overlaying data sets. For example, we have survey data on coral bleaching from the 1960s to 2012. You can overlay that with information about social and economic dependence on reefs. With a quick overlay – maybe five clicks – you can see which countries are reliant on coral reefs and which are experiencing heavy coral bleaching. That kind of thing sends not only a strong message, but also provides this great opportunity for new research and for diving into some of the issues more specifically.

Climate Central created a map called Areas Vulnerable to Coastal Flooding & Sea Level Rise, and you can set it to different levels by switching the layers. You can see that even with half a meter to a meter of sea level rise, there’s going to be a lot of coastline disappearing.

We have published a couple of blogs that show the power of quick visualizations to show what’s happening in the oceans globally. One is called “An Alarming Look at How Bad Coral Bleaching Could Get by 2050.” We built sliders that show projected 2030 coral reef bleaching versus 2050, and you can see now in 2018, we’re not too far off a kind of dire picture of what the ocean looks like in the next couple of decades.

So there are certainly components that are really accessible if you don’t have data expertise, but everything’s open, so people with the skills in other data visualization tools should be able to put things in really easily, build on them and hopefully share them back.

Oceans Deeply: How do you evaluate whether data is trustworthy, and are there caveats or precautions researchers should keep in mind?

Savoldelli: On the latter part, I would say that I am a lover of metadata. That’s a big piece of how we operate. We’re not the creators of most of this data, we’re pulling from different resources, and they all come with their cautions and stipulations. We try to be very cautious about that, so that when you’re conducting research it’s very clear.

In terms of our own curation, we do have a few guiding principles for the data. Some of those are things like openness: We want the data to be accessible to a wide audience. We do look to peer-reviewed sources, making sure that the data is robust and independent of bias.

And timeliness has been another big component. Often I think one of the issues that researchers have is that, by the time you’re able to use it, data can be quite out of date. But now we can have trustworthy data that is still quite recent, whether that’s through satellites or crowdsourcing with certification. We’re trying to get the most up-to-date and complete information possible.

Oceans Deeply: If someone reading this has access to open ocean data or data that can be made open, how can they contribute?

Savoldelli: I love that question. I will say that Resource Watch is a living platform. We launched in beta because we wanted to get it out as quickly as possible in as complete a form as possible, but there are still bugs, and there’s still data missing. We definitely want community input on what needs to be done and what’s useful for people’s work.

There are so many things that are hard to measure we’d love to see more of, whether that’s biodiversity, oceans plastic or around eutrophication and water quality. I’d love to be pointed to resources for those.

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