Sharing Data to Keep European Oceans Healthy

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A school of fish. Image Credit: Matthew Hoelscher
A school of fish. Image Credit: Matthew Hoelscher

A school of fish. Image Credit: Matthew Hoelscher

In August, the world’s seas scored 60 out of a possible 100 on a global marine health index, which assessed the status of the world’s seas through an ecosystems approach. Marine pollution, overfishing and increased greenhouse gas emissions combine to pose a suit of threats to the planet’s saltwater systems.

To help enhance the ability of scientists and stakeholders in the European Union to monitor the environmental health of the Mediterranean Sea, and support the implementation of a GEO Science and Technology Roadmap, the European Commission funded the EGIDA project (the Italian acronym stands for ‰ÛÏcoordinating Earth and environmental cross-disciplinary projects to promote GEOSS‰Û).

Since a key area of focus for EGIDA researchers is the Mediterranean, the project has assisted in the development of online tools for sharing environmental data between scientists and decision-makers in the region.

One such tool is a webmapping application developed by David March MorlÌÊ, a consultant with Spanish research institute Consejo Superior de Investigaciones CientÌ_ficas (CSIC), for the Gulf of Lions, a bay in the Mediterranean that lies between France and Spain. The application, which is still in its pilot stages, originated from a collaboration with the KnowSeas (knowledge-based sustainable management for Europe’s seas) project, a 4-year endeavor that ends in 2013 and brings together 32 partners from 16 countries with the intent of implementing an ‰ÛÏecosystems approach‰Û to management of the Baltic, Black, Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic seas.

Applying this ecosystems approach to marine management, KnowSeas incorporates geospatial, economic, and social science data, and a broad spectrum of practitioners, explains Tim O’Higgins, operational director for KnowSeas, based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, the body responsible for coordinating the project.

‰ÛÏWe are trying to draw the links from the ecological system back into the social system and measure the effects of the damage we’re doing to the environment,‰Û says O’ Higgins. He emphasizes that the way data is managed varies widely throughout Europe and there is a need for a multidisciplinary spatial database, like KnowSeas, that is easily accessible to decision-makers.

The Gulf of Lions tool March MorlÌÊ created makes use of a GIS interface, with layers for physical systems, including sea surface temperature and coastal erosion, and biological systems, including seabed habitats. When completed, the tool will allow decision-makers to easily visualize and use data, while offering researchers information about where the data was sourced, how it was generated, and the ability to download datasets, explains March MorlÌÊ.

A satellite image of the Gulf of Lions. Credit: NASA

A satellite image of the Gulf of Lions. Credit: NASA

Creating the tool came with some challenges, however, and when aiming to pool data from different countries for this type of interface, researchers can face numerous issues — sometimes just acquiring data can be difficult. For example, certain data sets that are provided free in Spain come at a cost in France, says March MorlÌÊ. At the same time, indicators may not be uniform across countries. When gathering data for tourism numbers, for example, data from French municipalities were expressed as number of beds per room, while data from Spain were expressed as the number of rooms used, which means researchers need to decide on a conversion unit when comparing them. Additionally, collecting data for the marine environment can be a little trickier than getting land-based data, since it tends to be scarcer and less accessible.

The development of the application for the Gulf of Lions proved to be a good transboundary case study, says Sergio Cinnirella, a scientist at the Italian National Research Council, who collaborated with March MorlÌÊ on developing the application and led the EGIDA use case study on hot-spot pollution in the Mediterranean.

Cinnirella’s work with March MorlÌÊ involved applying the ‰ÛÏsystem of systems‰Û approach to the development of the Mediterranean web tool. This resulted in tweaking the application from its original design, envisaged as single-user tool, to a more advanced multi-user tool that complies with Open Geospatial Consortium standards for interoperability (a report on outcomes of Cinnirella’s research is available as a pdf).

Ultimately, such a tool aims to make environmental data available, and share it among researchers and decision-makers, instead of leaving it ‰ÛÏclosed in some box somewhere,‰Û says Cinnirella.

Another EGIDA use case involves supporting the development of Info-Map, a system for sharing environmental metadata between members of the Barcelona Convention. Twenty-two parties have signed the convention, which aims to protect the Mediterranean Sea from pollution from ships, aircraft and land-based sources (Albania, Algeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, the European Community, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Morocco, Slovenia, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey). Fifteen of them are GEO members.

The proposed system incorporates data from Med Pol (Programme for the assessment and control of pollution of the Mediterranean). It would link information catalogues from participating countries to a central catalogue, via a set of regional nodes, creating a system of systems for sharing environmental metadata.The system, which incorporates GEOSS elements, is still in development (it currently functions using Italian data) and there are obstacles that stand in the way of promoting open sharing of meta-data in the region, explains Nico Bonora, a researcher at the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research.

‰ÛÏTechnologically, the barriers are broken,‰Û says Bonora. However, problems for data sharing crop up when states, often those neighboring Europe, are reticent in making environmental data available, perhaps because it is thought to be confidential. In some cases, the data sets are simply not available.

A map showing the proposed system of systems for sharing environmental data in Mediterranean region. Credit: Nico Bonara.

The proposed system of systems for sharing environmental data in Mediterranean region. Credit: Nico Bonara.

‰ÛÏI think the United Nations, especially in the environmental program — the Mediterranean Action Plan — has to push to promote data sharing,‰Û says Bonora. ‰ÛÏOnly if we get a situation where scientific information is exchanged, then can we improve the quality of the Mediterranean environment.‰Û

Opening environmental data to scientists and decision-makers, and making it easily accessible through online portals, can help in protecting marine environments. But it also could help cut the costs associated with performing environmental assessments. The extra work researchers put into obtaining quality data for Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) can result in a ‰ÛÏcost and time‰Û increase of 15 percent, according to a report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability. Slicing these time and cost constraints could deduct about 150 million euros off the annual costs of doing environmental assessments in the European Union, notes the report.

Due to the benefits associated with data tools, March MorlÌÊ would like to see universities and research institutions create similar applications. ‰ÛÏWe hope that in demonstrating the use of the SDIs (Spatial Data Infrastructure), we will be able to encourage people to use and develop their own SDIs in order to share data,‰Û he says.

Researchers have long struggled with the frustrations of not being to able to access certain data sets, either because they are not publicly available, do not exist, or are incomplete. But with Knowseas, O’ Higgins is optimistic about the direction that the future of data sharing could take.

‰ÛÏThe opportunities that we are going to have when all these distributed databases are really joined up, and then combining that with the web — the possibilities are very exciting.‰Û