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Spurring Ocean Research with Open Data

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Remote and near sensors, satellites, tidal buoys, deep-sea robots, and crewed research vessels are collecting more ocean data than ever before as the costs of some of these devices have fallen and technology has improved. Despite this effort, less than a quarter of the world’s oceans have been mapped, and scientists and societies are still tackling questions about ocean ecosystems and how to adapt to global challenges such as climate change.

Many regional and global databases hold ocean data, some of which are available to the public. Unfortunately, because data types are many and formatting standards do not always exist, even when data are openly available, not every researcher has the time, skill, or know-how to access them.

“These databases are a valuable source of information…but it is very time-consuming to find any data.”

“These databases are a valuable source of information…but it is very time-consuming to find any data,” said Anna Silyakova, an oceanographer at HUB Ocean, a nonprofit in Norway that now hopes to ease those barriers.

Compiling Uniform Ocean Data

HUB Ocean leaders plan to work with data curators to help them structure their databases in the cloud. Meanwhile, the nonprofit’s scientists are compiling open data from around the world, partnering with businesses and scientists to create a freely available and, hopefully, easier-to-use repository, the Ocean Data Platform.

“There are so many actors, people, individuals, initiatives, and institutions that gather data, but as long as you keep [them] all in different places, you will never have a full picture of what is happening in the ocean.”

“There are so many actors, people, individuals, initiatives, and institutions that gather data,” Silyakova said. “But as long as you keep [them] all in different places, you will never have a full picture of what is happening in the ocean, how our activities might affect the ocean, and how ocean-climate related processes can affect humanity.” A searchable data catalog would make information easier to find.

The tool will address twin issues that have kept data from being shared or searchable. First, the nonprofit’s staff, who have developed the expertise to work with a wide range of data types, are recruiting researchers and corporate entities to share their data directly. Second, HUB Ocean plans to make it easier than ever for people who download, repurpose, or reshare data to credit the original source.

Silyakova says that to date, there are regional services that focus on compiling data from specific countries or regions, such as the United States or Europe, but no similar service at the scale of the Ocean Data Platform.

The Ocean Data Platform isn’t publicly available yet, as the nonprofit is working with a few of its partners to test it. A launch is tentatively planned for 2023, and HUB Ocean presenters will recruit new testers at a 12 December session at AGU’s Fall Meeting 2022.

Crunching Numbers Made Easy

An online workspace is also in the works, tailored to researchers without experience working with various file types. The current patchwork of data analysis tools can be a barrier for those looking to work with unfamiliar data. “If you have to go and download multiple different files that come in lots of different formats, those types of things can [make it] hard for someone to get started using the data,” said Tara Zeynep Baris, a senior data scientist for HUB Ocean.

The tool, dubbed the Ocean Data Connector, is an analytical computing environment that scientists can use alongside the platform itself to search for, compile, and analyze data. This means scientists can work with data without needing excessive computing power and storage space.

Along with gathering available data, Silyakova said HUB Ocean is working at the interface between science, industry, and government, encouraging agencies to make their data publicly available. Some scientists are concerned that sharing data prior to their publication in a scholarly journal could encourage editors to shy away from their studies.

“Obviously, there’s no way for us to make sure everyone cites [the data], but it’s the same as if they were getting the data from anywhere else,” Baris said. She hopes including clear citation information with each data set will alleviate potential concerns about submissions to the Ocean Data Platform being circulated without attribution.

“I think it’s a need for this global community of research observatories to try to get better and better at making the data findable and usable,” said Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine meteorologist Jim Edson. He leads the Ocean Observatories Initiative, which shares data through its Data Explorer tool. Edson has also collaborated with NOAA’s National Data Buoy Center. “We’ve worked with [NOAA] to get a subset of our data on their site,” he said. “It wasn’t easy.”

The inclusion of commercial partners is unique to Hub Ocean compared to existing data repositories, he said. He agreed with the need for more and better data sharing. But it won’t be until after the Ocean Data Platform’s launch that scientists such as Edson will have a chance to truly test its worth.

—Robin Donovan (@RobinKD), Science Writer

Citation: Donovan, R. (2022), Spurring ocean research with open data, Eos, 103, https://doi.org/10.1029/2022EO220565. Published on 9 December 2022.
Text © 2022. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.

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