Ocean Sciences Opinion

Ocean Observations for Everyone

As the ocean observation community expands its research enterprise, it needs to better engage the end users of its data.

By and Amy Trice

A pilot navigating a large container vessel from offshore Atlantic waters into the Delaware Bay and Delaware River has one of the longest pilotages in the United States. Bringing these ships to harbor safely and efficiently requires skill and an enormous amount of data—such as bathymetric and positioning data, real-time tides and currents, and weather predictions. Pilots often make judgment calls around weather and navigational risks. For example, if a hurricane is coming, is it safer for ships to remain offshore, or should pilots navigate into port? These decisions are further complicated for pilots if ships are carrying sensitive cargo or environmentally hazardous materials like oil or natural gas. How can more effective, tailored data help these mariners address risk? The ocean observation community should think of these types of questions and ocean users when developing and deploying new technologies.

Ocean observations collected over the past half century have greatly informed our understanding of how humans are altering Earth. It is now time to reframe and expand our thinking to put ocean observations and knowledge to work for all users, benefiting scientists, large- and small-business owners, resource managers, innovators, and the ocean-loving public.

The upcoming OceanObs’19 conference offers an opportunity to usher in a new phase of making ocean observations useful and accessible to more users. While sharing the latest developments and future prospects, experts from academia, government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must find ways to engage users routinely and comprehensively at the start of new observing initiatives. It is sometimes tempting—in the interest of saving time and money—for scientists to develop research programs and solutions that look to solve perceived problems for imagined end users outside the laboratory. But without thoroughly engaging people, such as container vessel pilots, to understand their needs, we risk creating solutions for problems that do not exist.

Connecting Researchers with Data Users

Answers to basic research questions inform applied scientific questions that bear on how we can live and thrive in harmony with the ocean, now and in the future. For example, addressing the basic question of how the ocean is taking up more heat from global warming informs understanding of how fast ocean fisheries are moving poleward. And ocean observations are increasingly important to people who rely on the data every day to estimate risk and opportunity, supporting ocean-dependent jobs in coastal and inland communities and safeguarding marine ecosystems. Connecting those people to researchers early in the research planning process is a substantial challenge.

Researchers and technology developers struggle at times with identifying who needs ocean data and exactly what kind of information they need. Researchers’ specialized knowledge often does not overlap with that of fishers, aquaculture farmers, the port and maritime industry, or indigenous people. Like the maritime pilots who mentally integrate multiple data streams while at the helm, many users of ocean data know what they need and what is not helpful but do not have the time or personal connections with researchers to request products tailored to their everyday uses. Interdisciplinary partnerships rarely extend far enough past the laboratory door.

When researchers do include end users of information in the early stages of projects, these projects have a greater likelihood of creating lasting and useful products. Although this kind of partnership is not the norm, there have been success stories in which better coordination between researchers and ocean users has already provided real-life benefits. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, academic researchers, federal agencies, and resource managers consulted regional shellfish growers in creating a website and an app, released in 2012, to provide real-time ocean acidification and water quality data to support the shellfish aquaculture industry. Now high-quality updated ocean observations are available in growers’ pockets, in the context and format most useful to them.

In New England and the mid-Atlantic, the development of regional ocean data portals through the ocean planning process provides another example of a heavily data-based process with a forward looking vision resulting in products developed with coastal managers, federal agencies, industry, and scientists to make informed and strategic management decisions. The Northeast Ocean Data portal, for example, currently includes more than 5,000 data layers, along with metadata where appropriate, on a wide range of ecosystem and human activities encompassing marine life, fisheries, maritime commerce, recreation, national security, and energy infrastructure. During development and continuing since, the data portal team has engaged a range of ocean users to characterize and visualize human activity and ecosystems for the purpose of helping scientists, coastal managers, and people from industry make more informed management decisions.

New opportunities to apply these best practices and lessons learned emerge every day. Off the U.S. East Coast, infrastructure to capture renewable energy—particularly wind energy—is increasing rapidly. Collaborating with developers in industry, the ocean observation community could help address questions regarding potential impacts of wind turbines and other infrastructure before, during, and after installation. Meanwhile, given that these large structures are built to last 30 years or longer, the renewable energy sector could also contribute to ocean observations and advance long-term data sets by, for example, instrumenting wind turbines.

Improving Inclusivity in Ocean Observations

OceanObs’19 provides a potential turning point for the scientific community to begin holistically incorporating the needs of a wider array of end users. Opportunities exist for individual researchers, agencies, and the entire community to engage. At OceanObs’19, we want to see conversations and progress toward three specific goals.

First, when researchers develop new ideas, observational tools, or technologies, they should carefully consider the goals of their projects. This includes considering the underlying truth about whom our research currently benefits and whether it should benefit others to achieve economic and social equity as we extend the ocean observation enterprise. However, we also must also grapple with how to analyze and process existing data in new ways for the benefit not just of subsets of communities but also of whole communities. For instance, traditional knowledge from indigenous communities does not mesh neatly with information measured on fixed temporal and spatial scales by the natural science community. Assessing the two knowledge streams together will provide researchers with a more expansive view of the social-ecological system.

Fishermen fish along a shoreline as the sun sets
One idea for improving the broader usefulness of ocean observations is for funding agencies and grant makers to include outreach and engagement with potential end users of data and products as requirements of funded activities. Credit: Rafeed Hussain

Second, funding agencies and grant makers must include outreach and engagement with potential end users of data and products as requirements of funded activities. This is becoming increasingly common, but it needs to be systemic. Engagement should start during proposal development and would ideally help shape research questions and/or end products. Researchers should thoughtfully outline an engagement plan and ensure it is broad enough to encompass the range of potential and existing users for specific products. In addition, although funders often evaluate a researcher’s publication record during proposal evaluation as evidence of prior research success, rarely do they examine other metrics of success, such as prior successful stakeholder engagement. This also needs to change.

A related issue is how to create structures by which data intended to contribute to the public good (i.e., nonproprietary data) can be shared more effectively and by which those collecting and/or analyzing the data have more ownership of their work through their data’s life cycle. In many grant and funding programs, resources are provided to collect data but not to support their handoff to, nor their synthesis into and visualization on, archival platforms that house data and make them more publicly accessible. As a result, some data platforms are under resourced or outdated, and sometimes data do not even make it onto publicly accessible platforms. To address this, funding agencies and grant makers should require that at least half a person’s time for every project award go toward ensuring that data are archived, with adequate metadata, to public data systems. Although some federal agencies already meet this requirement, it should become standard policy.

Third, a governance panel that coordinates work both within the ocean observation community and with external partners would greatly enhance engagement goals and outcomes. The White House Ocean Policy Committee could direct its ocean science and technology subcommittee to serve in this role. Although the Ocean Policy Committee is engaging the ocean community in dialogues about partnerships, identifying challenges and barriers to advancing science and technology that engage a broad suite of ocean user groups would significantly advance our ability to understand and effectively manage the ocean. The subcommittee could also work to address issues like the balance between data privacy and transparency and how we can efficiently incorporate data from new sources and new technologies into the decision-making process.

Just the First Steps

The first steps outlined above will not resolve all the remaining questions with respect to increasing inclusivity in ocean observations and research planning. Other questions include the following: How do we build partnerships more effectively among academia, industry, philanthropies, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations? What can we collectively achieve through better coordination? And how do we ensure that data are used and reused as much as possible? If the research community commits first to grappling with the philosophical questions of who benefits from ocean observations and how to broaden the pool of beneficiaries, then we all will be better equipped to address the longer-term questions around a growing ocean-observing enterprise.

In a time of exciting ocean observation technology development—tempered by modest budgets—we need to develop solutions for problems that ocean users actually face. Models exist for including ocean users in decision-making about observations, synthesis, and applications. Boundary organizations and NGOs are eager to create links and facilitate collaboration among users and researchers. As the ocean observation community more routinely considers who benefits from particular advances, whether users have been adequately included in the development process, and how advances can be equitably shared, ocean observations have the potential to usher in a new era of ocean-based prosperity.

Author Information

Sarah Cooley ([email protected]) and Amy Trice, Ocean Conservancy, Washington, D.C.

Citation: Cooley, S., and A.Trice (2019), Ocean observations for everyone, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO133063. Published on 12 September 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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