Let’s talk about sharing ocean data for the greater good

In 2015, the oceans made an unexpected appearance into the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP) 21. What would be later known as the Paris Agreement, was paramount in recognizing the role that the oceans play in regulating our climate system and for the economies of many countries, particularly for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). To begin with, it is surprising that it took 21 COPs for climate negotiations to acknowledge the importance of the oceans. However, what seemed like an isolated event, suddenly became a stream of global events focused on the oceans, which culminated in SDG 14 (life underwater) being the only SDG to have its own UN conference, the “UN Oceans Conference.”

The attention that the oceans received in the last 5 years has been so widespread and diverse, that in 2019 the UN General Assembly declared that 2021-2030 would be the UN Decade of Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (Ocean Decade). Led by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), the role of the Ocean Decade is to get together all stakeholders and come up with a research and implementation agenda to reverse the declining health of our oceans. However, such a big task needs lots of data and coordination, including the development of global data repositories and access systems, something that industry, government and even academia have struggled with for decades.

Distribution of ARGO floats to measure diverse physical and chemical properties of the ocean. This is one of the few global datasets openly available where partnerships between many stakeholders have made possible the deployment and maintenance of the network. Taken from <http://www.argo.ucsd.edu/>

There are many reasons for not sharing data into public repositories, but some common themes are: (1) privacy concerns regarding interviewees/clients/users, (2) fear of giving away data to competitors, and (3) lack of standardized formats to make useful comparisons between datasets. After having participated and leading the development of data sharing initiatives, I have come to the conclusion that this is an ethical problem in two ways: (1) protecting privacy, and (2) trusting other users.

Bringing back this conversation to the oceans, I think that achieving the ambitious goals of the Ocean Decade will not be possible without true global data systems. These systems, however, need to have clear objectives and rules by which contributors, users and the public abide to. They also need to consider privacy issues and recognize that most of the data generated in the oceans is tied to particular uses, industries and communities, thus adding an ethical dimension. To date, there have been many efforts led by academic institutionsprivate-public partnerships and even UN organizations to collect and curate the new tsunami of ocean data (e.g. buoys, satellites, vessel tracking, oceanographic campaigns, remote operated vehicles, shipping routes, etc.); however, the same challenges are still there, privacy and trust. As an EthicalGEO fellow, I make a constant effort to bring these issues to the front of data discussions at UN fora. What do we need the data for? Who are the end users? Are there any ethical implications or sensitivities to the use of these data? 

I am convinced that the Ocean Decade will have a profound and lasting impact on the way we connect data to knowledge, and knowledge to action. I also acknowledge, however, that until we have an open conversation about the ethical dimensions of these data, we will not achieve the necessary partnerships to map, understand and realize a fully sustainable ocean.

I am Alfredo Giron and I was born in Mexico City. Most of my research has focused on developing methods to assess fisheries sustainability in rural communities and linking the results to their economic development. Through my work I realized that we don’t have an understanding of how to define poverty in these communities. Thus, my EthicalGEO project is to develop a framework to characterize different sphere/types of poverty in fishing communities and use this information to create a global map. The EthicalGEO fellowship will give me the opportunity to exchange ideas with other fellows and world experts and collaboratively create an impactful and meaningful map of the prevalence of poverty in fishing communities.