In this era of upheaval in the ocean, driven by climate change and other stressors, technological innovations offer a flood of new data and new capabilities for translating it into actionable information. From an exponential increase in the number and variety of ocean observing systems, new data sources like social media, and advances in processing techniques and visualisation, we now know more about the ocean than we’ve ever known before.

These innovations offer unprecedented potential to improve stewardship of ocean resources and ensure resilient and productive ecosystems. There’s just one problem: Most ocean data stemming from such innovations remains locked away, closely held by government agencies, companies, resource users or researchers.

Through its Decade of Ocean Science, which begins next year, the UN has recognized that the world needs more actionable information to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14, which seeks to conserve and sustainably use the ocean, seas and marine resources.  The UN Decade for Ocean Science presents an opportunity to leverage technological developments and make new sources of data widely known, applied and available. The data revolution could be coming to the ocean just in time.

A new paper, prepared by leading experts in support of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, found that seizing the opportunity offered by the ocean data revolution requires high-level, global action. Three key actions can build on the UN Decade of Ocean Science to create an open, actionable and equitable digital ecosystem for the ocean:

  1. Create shared and automated data access systems: Data tagging, federated data networks and data lakes should be combined to create a new era of open and automated access to ocean data. Enabled by new types of data infrastructure, data holders should establish, and governments should require, a new default – that ocean data are broadly available to other users unless there are compelling security, proprietary or other interests preventing this.

In other sectors like healthcare, federated data networks are being used to overcome privacy barriers to sharing data, while data lakes enable more efficient access to and processing of increasingly large data sets.

  1. Harness data and technology for better ocean management: Technology enables vital innovations in management that support sustainable ocean ecosystems, while democratizing information and exposing problems. Policymakers, resource managers and resource users should draw on new tools that provide real-time information in actionable forms. Better, more consistent data can facilitate automated mitigation measures and help hold actors accountable.

In Boston, for example, shipping lanes and the habitat of endangered right whales overlap. By placing hydrophones in the shipping lanes, marine resource managers can automatically detect when right whales are in the area and send signals to incoming vessels that they must slow down. This allows ships to maintain their speed and efficiency when whales are not present, while also reducing fatal ship strikes.

  1. Incentivize innovations for sustainability: Governments, industry and scientists need to work together to create the incentives, investments and business models that support the right innovations. These tools shouldn’t just be accessible to wealthy governments and industries, but by all who depend on the ocean and have a role in sustaining its future.

For instance, government-funded environmental research in the UK requires that data be shared with the public within two years of its collection. This policy has been critical in supporting innovation and ensuring open access to relevant oceans data.

Data for a Sustainable Ocean Economy

Historically, advances in technology have enabled further exploitation of marine ecosystems. Acting now is necessary to ensure that technology innovation supports knowledge, sustainable use and improved ecosystem resilience in response to global threats. Taken together, these actions ensure that the advances and resulting insights of the ocean data revolution are available to all who have a role to play in safeguarding the future of the ocean.