Free and open data to inspire next wave of ocean solutions

Global Fishing Watch establishes new portal to make application programming interfaces available to public

cogs over water

Inequitable access to data and technology in support of ocean stewardship often leads to lost opportunities in decision-making and innovation—especially in under-resourced countries. 

The international community continues to fall short in its efforts to conserve and sustainably use the ocean and marine resources, a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal. Therefore, we must work to collaborate more effectively to develop new solutions to mitigate or reverse human impacts to our ocean ecosystems.

That’s why Global Fishing Watch has set forth on a mission to enhance the transparency of fishing vessel data on a global scale and help governments address threats to marine resources, including illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Our API portal allows partners and stakeholders a new way to access dynamic datasets that are used in all our tools and incorporate them directly into their own systems, platforms and research.

Unleashing the potential of Global Fishing Watch

The portal provides access to a set of APIs, or application programming interfaces, which enable two software systems to communicate with one another by automatic retrieval of data. They are the foundation of all our technology at Global Fishing Watch and allow us to integrate, share, access and scale our data—first to power our map and now across the global ocean community. 

Partners and researchers already use Global Fishing Watch data in many creative and powerful ways, whether it’s estimating global collision-risk hotspots of marine traffic to whale sharks or revealing global risks of labor abuse and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. As a small team, we are unable to focus on every important issue facing the ocean today, so unleashing our knowledge in an automated and flexible framework will deliver greater access to other innovators who can develop and deploy actionable solutions to address ocean stressors.

To help empower ocean stakeholders, we continually work to evolve our technology, including incorporating new data sources and improving data formats, visualizations and accessibility. In early 2020, we released a curated set of data available for bulk download through our data download portal. Global researchers use this portal extensively to cite peer-reviewed data sources in new research publications. For non-technical stakeholders, we created a new feature that allows stakeholders to download underlying data directly from our map

In recent years, we started receiving requests from other organizations to use our data in support of their own ocean management tools. But rather than relying on static data, we wanted to allow our stakeholders to have continuous access to up-to-date information. Through an ongoing process of collaboration and learning, we identified the significant value and potential for impact in giving partners and stakeholders the ability to use our data the same way we do. 

Our APIs provide access to map tiling, visualizations of apparent fishing activity and events derived from automatic identification system (AIS) data, as well as the ability to search for a vessel. With this data, users can understand more about vessel movements and events, including encounter events between a carrier and fishing vessels, loitering activity and port visits.

Benefits of free and open APIs to all users

Global Fishing Watch’s APIs provide practical benefits, too. From ocean conservation to publishing new science, our data is making waves when it comes to advancing the management of our ocean.  

Create new impacts 

New technologies can be developed using our APIs to address the various threats facing our ocean.To kick off our work with partners, Global Fishing Watch is teaming up with SeaSketch to integrate AIS-derived apparent fishing activity data and visualizations into their marine spatial planning platform. This will supplement other data sources, including ocean use surveys that SeaSketch uses to inform the placement of new marine protected areas. Improved access and interconnectedness to our data will help lead to more informed management decisions based on the best available data and science. 

Our APIs can be combined with other data sources, too. By integrating AIS-derived apparent fishing activity with sea-surface temperature data, researchers can begin to identify shifts in fishing behavior due to marine heatwaves and climate change. Geomorphic and benthic coral maps can also be analyzed with AIS-derived apparent fishing activity to pinpoint interactions of fishing and shipping vessels with coral reefs. The opportunities are endless.

Advance science, research and knowledge 

To make data accessible to scientists and researchers in the common computer programming language R, we have created a package that allows researchers and statisticians to load into R libraries and interactive computational environments, like Jupyter Notebook, to conduct data science.

Our research partner, Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, is working to incorporate the APIs and R package into its curriculum to showcase how advances in technology and data science can help us better understand human impact on the Earth’s systems.

Other citizen science groups, such as the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, featured Global Fishing Watch data in their Eco Ambassador program, where global youth learn research and advocacy skills through mapping and digital storytelling, creating original stories about ocean threats and conservation.

Reduce barriers to accessing data on our ocean

From bulk static data to dynamic near-real time data, we will provide greater access to those seeking to bolster other technology solutions or simply learn more about our ocean.The Seavision platform harnesses the power of our APIs on vessel activity and provides insight into vessel encounters and loitering in near real time across global waters. This initiative supports improvement of maritime domain awareness and security for over 90 countries. Our APIs support this integrated approach, which reduces the number of “screens” and focuses on delivering insights through one system to maritime watch centers. 

How to access Global Fishing Watch APIs? 

What’s next? 

In 2023, we will be planning a hackathon to create community-led solutions in regions most affected by illegal fishing, climate change and other ocean threats. Participants will hack together data and technology to create actionable, impactful solutions for ocean and environmental challenges in their communities. 

By openly publishing our data and technology, we aim to transform global collaboration and catalyze solutions to address the ocean’s most complex problems. Our APIs advance our core commitments to create and publicly share knowledge of human activity at sea and foster equitable access to big data and technology for the common good.

Anna Sanders is the director of product development at Global Fishing Watch.

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