Marine Research, Open Science, and the 2019 Ocean Health Index Fellows

by Julie Lowndes

Cross-posted on

The second cohort of Ocean Health Index Fellows will use open data and tools to assess the state of the world’s oceans — and help inform vital marine policy

Measuring the health of the world’s oceans is a monumental task. It entails gathering and combining data about everything from biodiversity and mariculture to coastal protection and clean water. This data represents millions of square miles, and it demands an interdisciplinary approach, seeking links between ecology, economics, and other fields.

Despite this monumental task, the Ocean Health Index (OHI) is entering its eighth year of annually assessing ocean health around the world — and openly sharing the process and results to inform marine policy.

Also read: Protecting the world’s oceans with open data science

Each year, our findings are important as a snapshot but also as time lapse of how ocean health for 220 coastal nations and territories changes over time. These global OHI assessments have been endorsed by the World Economic Forum; used as an indicator by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity; and are expected to be an indicator in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water.

The OHI entails computationally-heavy analyses, nearly one hundred data sources, synthesized and widely communicated results, and an annual deadline. How do we do it? Open practices and data science play a big role: we tackle research in a collaborative, transparent, and highly-reproducible manner using open software and community practices. For us, it means openness in software and culture.

An open approach helps make results more reproducible. It also makes research more efficient: The first OHI global assessment in 2012 used few open tools and practices, and took 30 people three years to complete. The 2019 assessment, by comparison, will take two Fellows eight months, with half of that time being training. This means we have time to advance the science and application of the OHI — there are ongoing efforts in smaller regions including Canada, the Baltic Sea, and Ecuador — while also measuring annual progress toward healthy and sustainable oceans.

Although we have designed workflows to be reproducible, the true test of reproducibility is when people who are not familiar with the project are able to reproduce the methods. This, with our commitment to train others, led us to launch the OHI Fellows program — so we can train students to lead these annual assessment of ocean health.

Now in 2019, we will launch our second-ever cohort of OHI Fellows: environmental researchers on the front lines of this open science approach.

Meet this year’s Fellows

This year’s Fellows are Molly Williams and Gage Clawson. They are Masters students at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California Santa Barbara, specializing in coastal and marine resource management. This year, we had twenty applicants for only two positions, and we led interviews following a blind review process. We were thrilled to have so many strong applicants demonstrating interest to learn the data science and open practices we use in OHI to address complex challenges, and hoping to create a more sustainable relationship with our oceans.

Molly Williams comes from Seattle, Washington and has interests in adaptive management, community-based conservation, citizen science, open data science, environmental and social justice, and women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She is passionate about quantifying various dimensions of human-environment relationships, as well as plant-based cooking, adventuring (backpacking, travel, hiking, etc), snowboarding, amateur astronomy, and creating positive work cultures that reduce burnout and increase workplace satisfaction.

Gage Clawson is from Manteo, North Carolina and is interested in using math, statistics, and analytics for environmental science subjects. He recommends Fantasia Mathematica by Clifton Fadiman as a great collection of short stories all related to math. With music as one of his college majors, he is a lifelong musician and performer. He plays the trumpet, currently for the Brengrass band at UCSB, and makes time to play and perform as much as I can.

Both Molly and Gage say they wanted to work on OHI as a way to hone their data science skills and learn collaborative science techniques, as well as think critically about environmental issues and solutions. And, importantly, they are excited to learn about how the approaches we utilize in OHI can be used in future projects to make them more open and reproducible.

From January through August 2019, OHI Fellows will lead research for the next OHI global assessment of 220 coastal nations and territories. Along the way, they’ll share all the data and code they use, allowing others around the globe to build on and deepen their findings.

Long-term goals

The OHI Fellowship isn’t just about building the next OHI — it’s also about supporting a cohort of scientists with open science skills and values, who will graduate the program and share these practices with other researchers and new institutions. We encourage Fellows to “learn for others” and share their experiences and progress for future Fellows and others. They do this by sharing their experiences through the Fellows website, building from the work of OHI Fellow alumni Iwen Su, Camila Vargas, and Ellie Campbell and using the the same tools they were using for OHI analyses.

Fellows also bring their creativity to independent projects, and advance the communication of OHI through data explorers, websites, and video tutorials. Our goal is to enhance open science not just in the marine biology field, but all fields.

This year, I’m co-leading the OHI Fellowship with Melanie Frazier in part through support of a Fellowship of my own — I’m currently a Mozilla Fellow and have also recently launched Openscapes, which mentors environmental scientists in open practices and data science. Mozilla’s Fellowship program empowers me and others making the internet a more open and accessible resource. In this regard, Mozilla and the OHI are perfectly aligned, and it is an incredible opportunity to work with both teams.