Bridging tech and citizen science in ocean observation

Bridging tech and citizen science in ocean observation

Ocean scientist Patrick Gorringe has a vision. He’s progressively joining the dots along an impressive trajectory to connect tech with citizen engagement in the field of marine environmental monitoring.

Based in Sweden and contracted to the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI), whilst also coordinating EMODnet Physics and hosting international discussions on oceanography, Patrick is central to a team of researchers, tech providers and government bodies dedicated to generating vital data on ocean dynamics.

Why is ocean observation important?

With the “Ocean Decade”* now making ardent headway, this is a timely moment to be connecting citizens with the means to help understand and assist with oceanic sustainable development.

Ocean observation serves a myriad of purposes and assists us in developing a better understanding of the complexity of the planet’s climate system. Via satellite, remote and in-situ techniques, the work includes monitoring variables such as sea-level rise, ocean temperature, currents, and salinity, to tracking more obviously anthropological hazards such as pollution and harmful algal blooms.

This data can assist in improving our understanding of coastal ocean dynamics and coastal risks, both to assess the current situation and preview future scenarios in order to address threats and vulnerabilities and build better resistance.


Image: Patrick Gorringe at the EMODnet Open Conference 2023 - ©EMODnet

What can citizens contribute?

As key stakeholders, citizens form part of the broad interdisciplinary oceanographic ecosystem. Under the instruction and guidance of researchers they can take part in data collection through a process that also helps raising awareness about issues affecting our ocean.

Community improvements could be made in understanding climate change impacts, improving marine conservation and biodiversity, tracking and reducing plastic pollution and marina debris, monitoring water quality and developing early-warning systems for extreme weather events.

As Gorringe explains however,

“I find that researchers are often hesitant when it comes to citizen science data, immediately questioning its credibility and thus usefulness. Part of the problem of course comes from the fact that volunteers need to follow standardised procedures and collect data of a known quality – all of which requires effective training.

Equally, once a suitably diverse group of citizen scientists has been created and prepared, beyond providing sound communication and coordination, it can also sometimes be challenging to maintain consistency in terms of data generation.”

What are the solutions?

“Currently, many of the sensors we use are very sophisticated and can have an incredibly high cost. This means that their deployment requires significant resources – both financial and technical. My argument is that by deploying swarms of low-cost sensors, we both complement the observing system and can help facilitate citizen engagement. We can also vastly multiply our data sources across a much larger area, thus improving coverage and scalability, reducing redundancy, and generating a more comprehensive understanding of the environment or phenomenon being monitored.

Beyond this, there is the important matter of assisting less-developed countries in their search for accessible solutions. I’ve been contacted by individuals in Ghana, for example, who have asked us for the knowhow to set this up. I’m already involved in a project called COLaB which strives to provide under-resourced countries with the training and support to use low-cost sensors for local coastal observations. So work in this area is starting, but there’s a long way to go.”

How low-cost sensors are already being put to use.

Gorringe is involved in numerous projects from installing thousands of low-cost sensors in intertidal zones around the Atlantic, detecting hotspots and studying how thermal stress can affect resident species, to various initiatives using different types of marine craft ranging from commercial fishing boats to autonomous wind-driven robotic vessels for remote ocean sensing.

Another enterprise called the “Educational Passages” works to develop ocean literacy within an international education community, whilst an exciting new activity, due for launch at boot Düsseldorf, seeks to upload hundreds and thousands temperature profiles from scuba divers worldwide.

What’s next?

Patrick Gorringe is a person who brims with enthusiasm and clearly thrives off the energy inspired by meeting and connecting sensor innovators and proactive researchers and unearthing new opportunities. He is currently working on the means to offer developers an integral central location to share their work with ocean scientists. This implies creating an open-data platform which will serve as a marketplace for sensor developers and an orientational service for observers and researchers seeking information on suitable low-cost sensors. The data portal itself will be offered via the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet).

From a citizen engagement point of view, he would love to see more effort put into assisting communities achieve greater autonomy in taking an active role in ocean observation and contributing towards positive change. He recognises the potential of commercial and recreational fishers, water-sports enthusiasts, coastal residents, school children and students, conservationists, and nature enthusiasts in participating in the deployment of low-cost sensors to help respond to societal challenges, particularly in remote or underserved areas.

The flood of interest is building by the day and the excitement around this topic spreading quickly. Future hopes for the new platform involve developing a community of interested stakeholders, from researchers to concerned citizens around the globe, and establishing guidelines and training to assist with sensor use and data reporting. Bring on the new era of ocean observation!

References for further information:
*The United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)

European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet)