But in Europe these records are currently held by hundreds of organisations. Until recently, finding out who held data that had been collected at great expense was hard, obtaining permission to use them took extensive negotiation and putting together data from different sources with different nomenclature, different baselines and different formats to create a common picture required so much effort that many potential applications or studies never got off the ground. Unlike on land, where maps of topography and geology are universally available, some scientists and engineers have found it easier to resurvey areas that had already been surveyed because the data was too difficult to get hold of. This makes offshore development more expensive than it need be.
The EU's European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) is now beginning to change things. About 160 organisations are working together to construct and maintain a facility whereby stakeholders can search for, visualise and retrieve all the measurements concerning a specific parameter within a certain time and space window with one single command – wherever the data is stored. In order to maximise innovation and minimise bureaucracy, marine data is free of charge and free of restrictions on use. A milestone was reached at the end of 2015 when the complete coverage of all European sea basins was achieved.
The data is classified in six broad categories – bathymetry (water depth), geology, habitats, physics, chemistry and human activity. "Human activity" covers the nature, position and characteristics of structures such as aquaculture or ocean energy sites.
EMODnet has three major impacts. First, it cuts the time and effort required to plan and deploy offshore or coastal infrastructure such as harbours or wind turbines and to determine their environmental impact. Second, it allows us to do what couldn't be done before. Common habitat descriptions covering the waters of all European countries are helping to determine how to set up a coherent network of marine-protected areas and assess the impact of trawling on seabed ecosystems. Third, it reduces uncertainty and therefore risk. This can often be in unexpected ways. For instance, we have been informed by a national meteorological office that the improvements we have made to the knowledge of water depth have improved the forecasting of storm surges.
In 2017, a new phase will begin with higher resolution and increased emphasis on emerging concerns such as the distribution of marine litter. Efforts are also underway to engage more with private industry; partly to ensure that the services delivered by EMODnet meet their needs but also to bring in more of the data they collect for their own purposes. Much data that is collected for the purposes of licensing or impact assessments are lost afterwards; not because the data has a commercial value but because there are no easy ways to hand them over. A data-ingestion facility that will facilitate this handover will start operating by the beginning of 2017.
Finally, EMODnet is contributing towards a greater transparency and public engagement in ocean management. Previously, only governments and large industries could pronounce informed opinions on proposed developments. Now, all concerned can have their say. This is a step forward in good ocean management. Just like better knowledge, public involvement will also help us preserve the oceans for mankind.