November 15, 2013

The Ocean’s Big Data

By Linda A. Sturgis

Just off the coast of Virginia and North Carolina – there are offshore military training areas, proposed wind farms, and ever-increasing commercial shipping traffic – all in the middle of an endangered species migratory path.  How should the United States rank the relative importance of defense readiness, sustainable energy resources, the nation’s economic health and the preservation of ocean ecosystems and marine resources?  It is difficult – if not impossible - to prioritize these coastal zone activities and their importance to our nation.  It is all interconnected; they all matter.

Amongst U.S. military, public and private sector stakeholders, and in the commercial ocean users and conservation communities a common theme related to marine activity is emerging – there is a call for a joint mapping platform, or “ocean atlas,” to benefit United States national security, economic, and environmental interests. 

There is no Google Earth or similar “big data” initiative to incorporate all ocean and coastal zone uses for public consumption. The diverse communities and sectors active in coastal zones appear willing, even eager, to collaborate and see this work accomplished. Creation of a multi-sector ocean atlas would require collaboration among a variety of ocean users to share data.  However there is no one federal agency or private entity currently collecting all uses of the ocean to integrate all available data layers.

CNAS’ current study of the coastal zone and competing demands by multiple users through extensive workshops and interviews, it has become clear that the time is now to support an integrated joint ocean mapping platform concurrent with the National Ocean Council’s direction toward comprehensive national ocean planning.


In the coming months, CNAS will publish a policy brief to educate national leaders about the need for a collaborative, big data project to chart coastal zone activity. We will also engage the military, civilian leaders and civil society about strategies for realizing this vision to synthesize the ocean’s “big data.”