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Why America Must Lead—and Fund—the Ocean Data Revolution

We have an opportunity to empower natural resource managers, federal agencies and local communities to make informed decisions with the best available science.

Last year, before the pandemic, some of the world’s most dedicated data experts gathered at an Ocean Data Roundtable to improve the way we manage ocean data for the health of the planet and the millions who depend on it for food, their livelihoods, or recreation. Building on that meeting, Ocean Conservancy and the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) analyzed America’s ocean data revolution in a detailed report published in May 2021. And now during National Ocean Month, as attention has turned to our oceans and the start of hurricane season, we call on ocean advocates and decision-makers to recognize that their work ultimately depends on a deeper understanding of the ocean’s complexity—and that that understanding must be supported by better data. 

Integrated and accessible ocean data is critical to supporting multiple aspects of how we manage and protect our ocean. Ocean data is essential to support commerce by improving shellfish and fisheries production and managing shipping routes. Data and data-driven models also help us protect endangered species by understanding food sources and migration patterns, protect coral reefs, and identify appropriate sites for offshore wind to shift toward renewable energy sources. They are also vital to creating and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts as we are experiencing longer and more severe hurricane seasons, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification.

While the importance of ocean data is clear, we are still working with huge data gaps. More than 80% of the ocean is still unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored. Funding this work at previous levels will not be enough to meet the growing need for integrated and accessible ocean data. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Exploration program received only $42 million of $5.65 billion that was allocated to the agency last year. President Biden has called for a $1.4 billion increase for NOAA’s budget that, if enacted by Congress, could begin to close this gap. For context, the “blue economy,” which includes shipping, fishing, tourism and offshore energy development, accounts for almost $400 billion of the U.S. gross national product—four orders of magnitude greater than the amount spent on the exploration that is essential to keep that economy growing.

Improving ocean data is no easy task. The data landscape is becoming ever more complex with the widespread use of new, inexpensive, and autonomous ocean observation technologies. A recent study found these systems “are transmitting as much data in one year as has been acquired in the past century.” The increase in real-time data will require network architecture and data management capabilities far beyond current capacity. Beyond the challenges of sheer volume, the use of ocean data is constrained by data silos, concerns around privacy and confidentiality, and lack of data standards.

We believe that the challenges facing the ocean data revolution offer significant opportunities. Congress can make the United States a leader by increasing NOAA’s budget and supporting collaborations and partnerships that advance not just data and information collection but also management, including:

  • Advancing the National Strategy for Mapping, Exploring and Characterizing the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone that would fill large gaps in our knowledge about ocean ecosystems in the areas of the ocean under U.S. control;
  • Modernizing and investing in ocean data management to inform our stewardship and sustainable use of marine resources during a critical time of rapid and accelerating change in our ocean; and
  • Advancing regional ocean data portals and promoting collaborative data projects among Regional Ocean Partnerships and Integrated Ocean Observing System Regional Associations.

In addition to funding, NOAA and its partners can improve the management of ocean data by:

  • Dedicating 5-10% of the budget for federally funded ocean research projects to data management;
  • Allocating a portion of funding to support cloud computing for data generated by scientific research;
  • Engaging with communities and ocean users to ensure that data is collected, managed, and made available in ways that meet their needs;
  • Adopting practices used by the healthcare industry and others to protect data privacy and manage proprietary data; and
  • Advancing a common framework, developed by both public and private ocean observation entities, to ensure that ocean data is open, freely available, discoverable, and comparable.

Increasing U.S. funding, partnerships, and capacity for managing ocean data could usher in bold new ocean-based solutions. New data and data systems will empower natural resource managers, federal agencies, and local communities to make informed decisions with the best available science. To reduce environmental threats to the ocean and manage the ocean’s role in climate change, we need to act now.

It’s time for America to lead—and fund—the ocean data revolution to meet the needs of our own marine businesses, scientists, and communities. 

Amy Trice ( is director of ocean planning at ocean conservancy the Center for Open Data Enterprise. Joel Gurin ( is president of the Center for Open Data Enterprise. They thank NOAA, Esri, Amazon, and Microsoft for partnering on the 2020 roundtable that led to their May 2021 report.