The Case for Open Data

Promoting and facilitating electronic data access and sharing 

Oceans play an essential role in the Earth’s climatic system, notably due to oceanic currents and its carbon absorption capacity. In a global warming context, it is becoming more and more important to understand our ocean. The more we understand our ocean, the more we will be able to predict impacts on fisheries, coastal erosion and others elements of our economy and environment, but most of all, the more we will be able to support informed decision-making. That is why important ocean research is being done. The Saint-Lawrence is no exception to that trend.

The St. Lawrence is a major ecosystem with a rich ecological diversity, extreme physical conditions (e.g., tides, ice, temperature and currents), sensitive coasts and habitats, a large coastal population and numerous socio-economic and development activities (e.g., fishing, dredging, coastal engineering, aquaculture). The St. Lawrence River, Estuary and Gulf represent over 250,000 km2. Marine transportation, fishing and eco-tourism are among the main conomic activities. There is also increasing interest in offshore oil and gas exploitation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Collecting and sharing new and existing data on this major ecosystem then becomes essential to best decision-making.

Large amounts of data are regularly collected by various organizations carrying out their monitoring or research activities in the St. Lawrence ecosystem in response to a common need to better understand, model or predict changes that occur in the environment. However, access to such a wealth of information is often proven inefficient due to the lack of a common framework ensuring interconnections between organizations, data registries, systems and user interfaces and fostering the use of recognized standards.

The vision behind the St. Lawrence Global Observatory (SLGO) initiative, launched in 2005, is to provide efficient web access to timely and accurate data and information from a network of governmental, academic and community organizations for the sustainable management of the St. Lawrence ecosystem. That vision is still very strong and shared. In fact, the necessity and advantages of data sharing and dissemination was one of the common elements that came out of the Ocean Innovation conference, held last October in Rimouski, Quebec. Furthermore, the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation, signed in May 2013, clearly identifies efforts to better coordinate data sharing as an activity to expand knowledge of the Atlantic Ocean.

After eight years of activity, the challenges of the SLGO in achieving its goals are still significant. To disseminate data, the SLGO first requires access to data from scientists and research institutions, our biggest challenge. The scientific community has to equally value publications and data. The changes in this regard have begun. In fact, scientists are now seeing the advantages to easily having access to and disseminating their data on the SLGO’S portal, but scientists, research centres and institutions generally do not have the time or resources to do so. The best way to ensure that data will not be left on a shelf is to include the budget for their data management and dissemination right from the start in the funding request for research projects or programs and to designate these resources solely for that purpose.

The observatory concept applied to the St. Lawrence ecosystem is based on joint contributions of member organizations and is defined as the collective range of activities, capacities and infrastructures dedicated to the collection, management, analysis, processing, modelling and dissemination of data, information, knowledge, value-added products and services, and made available to applications and systems in order to meet societal needs.

The synergy created by clustering the means and expertise of the member organizations results in optimizing information dissemination, reducing duplicated efforts and identifying data gaps. Organizations participating in the implementation of the St. Lawrence Global Observatory believe that by providing accessible, timely and accurate data, the SLGO will contribute to and support decision making processes in areas such as public safety, climate change, resource management and conservation. These advantages ensure that investing in data sharing is a worthwhile endeavor. That is why promoting and facilitating electronic data access, dissemination and exchange is part of its mission.

The SLGO’s dedication to promote data sharing will help to meet the objectives of large programs such as the Canada-Quebec Agreement on the St. Lawrence and the Great-Lakes/St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement and the Galway Statement on Atlantic Ocean Cooperation. Furthermore, SLGO participates in creating both national and international collaborations in order to expand the observing system of the Atlantic Ocean, from Canada to Europe.

As published in: Journal of Ocean Technology, Vol. 8, No. 4, December-March 2013.