A Wave of Abundance from Big Ocean Data

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A wealth of ocean data has been and is being collected. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collects over 20 terabytes of data each day. Many of the datasets are open to the public, yet very few are being used for resource management, business, or conservation. Most businesses, let alone individuals, do not have the time or ability to translate ocean data into actionable information, yet very large industries and millions of people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods and well-being.

So long as ocean data remain disconnected from services that people and markets can use, we will be unable to engage the numbers of actors needed to address critical ocean challenges. Data collection is also not evenly distributed — some regions are in need of data acquisition, a need that could be addressed through the development of demand for data services, which will in turn drive demand for data collection tools. Overall, there is a market failure for meaningful data services, and the time is ripe for market development.

That is why, in 2016, XPRIZE sponsored the $100,000 Big Ocean Button Challenge; a mobile app development competition to turn ocean data into the ocean services we need. Prizes will be awarded for apps in the following categories: Fishing, Shipping and Trade, Ocean Acidification, Public Safety, and Exploration. There are 45 teams left in this competition with a strong diversity of ocean app concepts being submitted from visualizing ocean acidification data, ‘seeing’ the seafloor, projecting sea level rise in coastal cities, to broadcasting water quality, improving port and shipping efficiencies, growing citizen science efforts, predicting marine weather, and connecting fishermen directly to consumers. Some of these could have a huge economic, public safety, scientific or conservation benefit, others are just really fun and engaging about the ocean.

Given the almost incomprehensible size of our ocean, although we have a lot of data it is unevenly collected and we have only scratched the surface and explored a mere 5% of our seas. To improve our access to the ocean, the $7 Million Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is incentivizing innovators to develop the autonomous technology we need to gather more information about our planet. Currently 19 semi-finalist teams, with members from 25 countries, are building underwater robots and drones that will map the sea-floor at a high resolution and bring back images from the ocean. Within this is a $1 Million NOAA Bonus Prize for pioneering technology that will detect a chemical or biological signal underwater and autonomously trace the signal to its source, providing additional data on features such as hydrothermal vents and biological hotspots.

As ocean services improve through app development and improved data gathering technologies, we will ultimately have unprecedented information at our fingertips about our oceans. And the app economy is about to explode, according to the Washington Post, in the next five years apps will be worth $6.3 trillion, up from $1.3 trillion last year. We need big ocean data to be visualized so it can ride this economic wave of mobile app services.

About the Authors

Matthew Mulrennan is the Director of the Ocean Initiative at XPRIZE – a commitment to conduct five ocean XPRIZE competitions, and put us on a path to making the ocean healthy, valued and understood. Prior to joining XPRIZE he worked as a marine scientist at the conservation organization Oceana, based in Washington, D.C., where he advocated for policies to promote clean energy, and communicated the threats to marine life from ocean acidification to the media, public and policymakers. Matthew holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from Miami University and a Master’s in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.


Dr. Jyotika Virmani is the Senior Director for Planet & Environment at XPRIZE and prize lead for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. Dr. Jyotika Virmani joined XPRIZE in 2014 with more than 10 years of experience in the oceanic and atmospheric sciences, including both research and leadership positions. Prior to this, she was the Director of Technical Operations for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE. To these positions, Dr. Virmani brings her scientific and technical expertise and knowledge of ocean and atmospheric observing systems to help address the challenging problems we face in understanding the Earth’s climate system. Dr. Virmani has a Ph.D. in Physical Oceanography from the University of South Florida.

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