Oceans of Data: A Beautiful Thing

Ever wonder how many marine protected areas (MPAs) are out there, or how big they are? Are you curious about how much trash is floating around in the ocean? Do you have a hard time picturing such things when you read about them? A few new data visualization tools may help you get your head around all this.


Data visualization is a powerful way to make large and complex pieces of information more accessible, so we can better understand, appreciate and draw conclusions from them. The light pollution map below, for example, captures the contrast between Japan and Mongolia, illustrating global industrialization far more quickly and powerfully than any written report on could.


When it comes to MPAs, our interactions with them are often theoretical – there is no line in the ocean marking this or that area as protected – and their true scope can be hard to grasp. MPAtlas.org lays bare the jolting statistic that only 1.2% of the world’s ocean is protected. Being able to see all the MPAs at once in a clear visual format is powerful for educators, policy makers, and ocean users. Created by the Marine Conservation Institute and the Waitt Foundation, MPAtlas.org provides an interactive map of all the current and proposed MPAs on Earth – over 8000 at last count.

Viewers can see information on each MPA overlaid on a world map: its protection status, boundaries, and rules. Users are encouraged to post photos, descriptions, comments and updates to the content there, as site creators aim to create a virtual congregation of ocean advocates to keep the site accurate and up-to-date. It also posts the latest news on MPAs, and powers the MPApedia.



Another visualization tool, MarineMap.org, provides even more layers of detail for California MPAs exclusively. From the Data Layers menu, viewers can choose what biological, geographical, and oceanographic details they want to see overlaid on the map.  This includes items such as water quality, sea bird diversity, and even surfing and diving locations. With a registered account users can access detailed reports on the habitat, geography, and the fishery impacts of individual MPAs, and draw in MPAs on the map to join the discussion of setting boundaries for protected areas.

If you’re looking to get a handle on the amount of trash floating around the planet, the Waste Map from “Let’s do it! World,” is a great tool. The map shows trash points with links to photos on Flickr. The smart phone app lets users map trash and clean-up efforts from any location. The website encourages people to contribute their photos, and bring attention to the trash in their communities as part of an international effort to raise awareness of illegal waste. To put all the world’s trash online in photos for everyone to see is powerful; the global issue of trash becomes irrefutable and appalling when you can see how much there is.



Tools like these become even more powerful when they’re combined. If we overlaid trash photo mapping with visualizations of MPAs, researchers could have a better idea of how trash impacts fish migration patterns, marine life populations, and the health of ocean ecosystems. 


Data visualizations like these make environmental issues blindingly apparent and unforgettable, in this case showing the overwhelming majority of our ocean is unprotected, and that trash is everywhere.


Hopefully they will deliver the inspiration needed to make change too.


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