Hey Developers, Wanna Make an App to Help the Ocean?

We have a lot of data about the ocean, but much of it is in obscure databases – unintegrated, unanalyzed, and largely inaccessible for the public. There is so much we could do with all that information if it was easy to visualize and interpret. At our fingertips, we could have alerts about the presence of water pollution and jellyfish at beaches. We could track seafood and make sure it is fresh, sustainable, and the supply chain is free of the human rights violations that currently proliferate. We could have an early warning system for ocean acidification, before it decimates oyster aquaculture.

Thus, the recent launch of the Big Ocean Button Challenge, which aims to “bring app developers to the trove of available ocean data in order to catalyze the growth of a potentially multi-billion-dollar industry in ocean data products.” (Disclosure: I helped develop this competition, as a consultant to XPRIZE.)

Given the US president-elect who appears to be anti-science, future federal funding for ocean research and monitoring is highly uncertain, potentially jeopardizing our ability for science-based management of the ocean resources upon which food security, livelihoods, cultures, and our very climate depend. Therefore, there is an urgent need to prove the value of diligent, long-term ocean data collection. To this end, this competition is engaging the private sector – the tech community in particular – to explore and develop ocean data products and services. The development of this sector is a huge economic opportunity, on par with the commercial weather industry.

To counter this problem of so much ocean data, yet so little being used, prizes will be awarded in the following categories:

  1. Fishing— Apps focused on sustainable use and management of fishing, seafood traceability, species identification, combating illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, or enforcement of marine protected areas.
  2. Shipping & Trade— Apps focused on ship tracking, efficiency of trade routes, port information, available docks, citizen science, and uses for empty shipping containers.
  3. Ocean Acidification— Apps related to an early warning system about changing pH levels and the potential impacts to local biology and marine resources. This is a follow on to the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE awarded in 2015 to develop breakthrough ocean pH sensors.
  4. Public Safety— Apps related to public health, safety, and recreation, water quality, tsunami and tide warnings, jellyfish or harmful algal blooms, and beach closures.
  5. Exploration—Apps related to bathymetry (seafloor maps), bio-prospecting for medicines, species discovery, education, and biodiversity.

This competition additionally aims to: foster a community of practitioners in this burgeoning field, ensure ocean data becomes accessible to millions more people, and generate innovative uses for ocean data. It also hopes to initiate the bridging of gaps amongst “the scientific community, the tech community, ocean resource managers and governments, and the private sector.”

To find out more, follow the ideas being developed, or register to compete (by March 31st), go to herox.com/bigoceanbutton. Who will develop the next Accuweather or Surfline app? What will it do? What doors will it open?  What will it teach us? What will it look like? How will it help restore and sustain the ocean? Stay tuned…

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist, policy expert, conservation strategist, and Brooklyn native. She is founder and president of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for ocean conservation strategies grounded in social justice. She teaches at New York University as an adjunct professor, and was co-director of partnerships for the March for Science. As executive director of the Waitt Institute, Ayana co-founded the Blue Halo Initiative and led the Caribbean’s first successful island-wide ocean zoning effort. Previously, she worked on ocean policy at the EPA and NOAA, and was recently a TED resident and Aspen Institute fellow. She envisions and works toward a healthy ocean that supports food security, economies, and cultures. Find her @ayanaeliza.