Marine data

Since the start-up, VLIZ has recognised the value of marine data as the new blue gold. Data and data management therefore play an important role in the institute’s activities. The VLIZ data centre currently manages a dozen larger data systems, ranging from biodiversity and geophysics to cartography. Thanks to the early and sustained investment in the collection of high-quality, freely accessible data, VLIZ has become a pioneer and world player in marine data. Right from the start, VLIZ has focused fully on open access. All databases already complied with the FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) principle, long before the motto "as open as possible and as closed as necessary" became mainstream.

The development of the data systems was characterised by a few important milestones. In 2000, the Integrated Marine Information System (IMIS) was initiated. IMIS links persons to institutes, publications, projects, data sets and maps. In 2005, the Open Marine Archive (OMA) was introduced to make the literature collection digitally accessible. Many marine scientists and researchers utilise this system intensively (1,795 requests were replied to in 2023, in 95% of the cases within one day). Another major step was the participation of VLIZ in EU-subsidised programmes. The MarBEF project resulted in the start-up of an EU register for marine species (which would eventually be known as the World Register of Marine Species or WoRMS) and of the VLIMAR Gazetteer (later on known as 'Marine Regions'). Other databases were soon to follow as part of several European projects. Thanks to important funding streams from the Flemish government, including the Flemish contribution to several infrastructures of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), VLIZ was able to make significant investments in information and data management. Another project worth mentioning is the extensive research and monitoring programme OMES. Since 1995, this programme has systematically kept track of the water quality and quantity as well as the wildlife in the Scheldt estuary. On behalf of the Flemish-Dutch Scheldt Commission, VLIZ hosts the website and makes it accessible via ScheldeMonitor. Since 2004, this portal has compiled these data together with all other monitoring data from the MONEOS programme (monitoring and research programme to support cross-border policy and management cooperation in the Scheldt estuary).

Mariene data

The arrival of some prominent international players in the VLIZ buildings testified to VLIZ’s position in the marine data landscape. In 2005, the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) project office of UNESCO-IOC moved into the VLIZ buildings. This was also the case for the Ocean Teacher Global Academy (OTGA) training programme and the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS), to which VLIZ makes the European contribution. In 2013, VLIZ also accommodated the European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODnet) secretariat. In this context, VLIZ was mandated by the Flemish government to develop the central web portal which provides users with access to all data types offered by EMODnet.

In terms of topics, the focus was initially on the management of international biodiversity data. In 2002, VLIZ initiated its own time series of abiotic data from the Belgian part of the North Sea (BPNS), within the scope of measurement campaigns onboard the research vessels Zeeleeuw and Simon Stevin. The international scope was expanded further with the initiative started up by VLIZ in partnership with GLOSS after the tsunami in Asia in 2004, to coordinate the web portal of sea level measuring stations worldwide. Thanks to VLIZ’s role as data manager in the context of (inter)national partnerships, its data systems grew systematically (including IMIS). The integration of the international research infrastructures LifeWatch and ICOS (in 2012) further expanded the measurement data from the BPNS with biotic data sets and measurements of greenhouse gases. They also became more diverse thanks to the development of dedicated data portals (ScheldeMonitor, 4DEMON and CREST).

Also internally, VLIZ added other data types to its portfolio, including data archaeology, such as the HisGisKust project concerning the digitisation of old geographical maps or data from citizen science (SeaWatch-B and CoastSnap). Since the start of its research mandate in 2017 as well as the establishment of the Marine Observation Centre and the Marine Robotics Centre in 2018, the number of data types has risen sharply and the data volume generated by VLIZ itself has increased exponentially.

With its data systems, VLIZ serves a wide group of marine professionals worldwide, ranging from policymakers to scientists and companies. This is thanks to an extensive community of data suppliers (e.g. WoRMS, ScheldeMonitor, EurOBIS, EMODnet) on the one hand, and to VLIZ’s own efforts such as Marine Regions on the other hand.

Graph: Number of publications (for scientific use) having referred to / cited WoRMS since the start of WoRMS in 2007

In addition, VLIZ provides data-related services. For instance, it performs all sorts of tasks and responsibilities regarding the searching, archiving, saving, checking, streamlining, compiling and publishing of data in over 40 projects. Outside project contexts, VLIZ has operated a helpdesk for over ten years where anyone can request data or data management support, such as help with the production of digital object identifiers (DOIs).

This growing expertise has enabled VLIZ and its partners (e.g. IODE Project Office within the scope of OTGA, EMODnet consortium and the research infrastructures ICOS, LifeWatch and EMBRC) to lead the way and share knowledge by using these rich data sets in data training activities.

In addition, data have always been an important part of the conclusion of cooperation agreements, both on a national and on an international level. All 39 international cooperation agreements contain a section concerning data exchange, 13 of which were the result of the work done by VLIZ within the scope of Aphia (WoRMS).

OECD: "Provision of public marine data in Flanders is helping to realise the Flemish Government’s open data objectives, is used to increase knowledge and understanding of marine and coastal spaces in Belgium, and could be considered a model for other coastal regions looking to broaden the reach of public marine data provision in their communities."

A recent OECD study has revealed the broad applicability of marine data in Flanders. The return on investment appears to be very high for Flanders. The marine databases in Flanders constitute the basis for numerous complex value chains with a wider scope than the original reason for data collection. And the future looks promising.

The further diversification of data collection and application, for instance in the field of offshore security and military operations, creates more than additional funding streams. It also promotes interdisciplinary collaboration. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine-to-machine learning are implemented and will optimise the interconnectivity between data systems. By providing a better insight into the users of marine data, the visibility among particular user groups can be enhanced. On a European level, the interconnection between various data types, data sources and calculation models will also result in the Digital Twin Ocean (DTO), whose e-infrastructure VLIZ helps to develop. On a Flemish level, the government agency Digitaal Vlaanderen is constructing the Flemish Smart Data Space. It is an ecosystem governed by clear rules, whereby data can be shared, published and reused in a smart manner. VLIZ is making its contribution via the MAREGRAPH project.

The unique situation of a small continental surface area which is intensively measured and monitored makes Belgium an ideal case study for the connection of expertise across disciplines and users. We are looking forward to what our 'blue gold' can contribute to knowledge and innovation in the future!