ACTION NEEDED: Earth's magnificent and vast oceans are under severe duress and require urgent attention. Picture: Armand Hough
We have collected more data on our oceans over 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.

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% 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, 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.

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.

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

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 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 privatised, placing them out of the reach of many regulators in small island states, the UN, universities, and many other interested parties.

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

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.

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 UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

One example of an international governance body that balances public and private interest is Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), 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 settings 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 mobilise swiftly enough and act in time.

This article was originally published on

  • Nishan Degnarain is a member of the National Ocean Taskforce, government of Mauritius
  • Steve Adler is a chief data strategist at IBM Watson