Ocean Outreach in an Evolving Online Ecosystem: Exploration wants to be shared

This is the transcript of the keynote I delivered at the Fourth International Marine Conservation Congress in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It has been lightly modified for flow.

Read Act II: Transforming the Narrative.


Now I want to shift gears and look towards the future, where we’re going, and what tools are available to help us get there. Because the future of ocean outreach, and really the future of ocean conservation, comes down to this one concept: “Exploration wants to be shared”.


Sealand courtesy the Daily Beast

The online ocean ecosystem is full of platforms–preexisting tools that allow us to produce, share, broadcast, enhance, and manage our outreach campaigns. Not just the obvious ones like Twitter and Facebook, but more niche tools like Slack, github, Ushahidi, medium, and yes, even PokemonGo, or if you want something a bit more serious, consider R as something that’s not just a statistics package, but a way to share your own software and data with the scientific community.

Having diverse substrate is great, but in order for an ecosystem to flourish, you have to find the right substrate and build upon it. You have to harness that substrate to create your online space.


Morpheus courtesy The Matrix

And online spaces are real spaces. These are places, digital places, but still places, where people come together, where communities grow and spread and thrive and collapse and evolve.


So if we have the platforms, and we have the community, what comes next? Well, if the past of ocean outreach has been all about going out into the world, doing good science, making discoveries, exploring the ocean, and then coming back and sharing those adventures with an enraptured audience, the future of ocean outreach is bringing our audience with us on the adventure.

The challenge for researchers and explorers today is not “how will we get there?”, but “how will we bring everyone with us?”


There’s a new hero in this narrative of ocean science and conservation. The fourth hero. Citizen scientists, volunteer participants, artists, writers, transdisciplinary professionals. Your audience, but not your audience at the edge of the ax, your audience at the heel, that committed core who carries your work forward. It’s no longer enough to simply tell them a story, it has to be their story, too.


D and D Wallpaper courtesy Wizards of the Coast

So the challenge now is how do we bring these new heroes into our story, how do we create communities that welcome new participants, that welcome new contributors, to engage more stakeholders, to increase the breadth and depth of ocean science and conservation without compromising the narrative. Without compromising the science.

Now, again, I’m talking specifically about transformative outreach, and I know that not every campaign, not every research program is amenable to welcoming the fourth hero.

But this is the heart of transformative outreach. The fourth hero has skills, abilities, and connections that we as scientists, as science communicators, as conservation professionals, may lack. But welcoming the fourth hero means taking risks.


And here’s the beautiful thing about risk taking. Ineffective outreach, by definition, doesn’t reach very many people. No one remembers ineffective outreach. So take the risk and trust that everyone will forget the failures.


You can’t just drag the fourth hero along on an expedition and hope they succeed, you have to build them into your plan from the beginning–you have to look for the empty berths. Sometimes an empty berth is literally extra space on a research vessel. If you go sailing on a month-long research cruise, and there are empty berths that could have been filled by artists, musicians, writers, journalists, cartoonists, nerdcore rappers, or celebrity cake decorators, you’ve missed out on one of the most powerful outreach opportunities for your entire campaign.

But you also have access to the tools of the connected web, where you can host teleconferences, live stream ROV footage, shoot and share 360 video, create virtual reality experiences, and even cede control of your project to the audience.

I was recently on an expedition to Lake Tahoe to search for a historic shipwreck where the first half of the project was directed by a team of local archaeologists and researchers from NOAA, but for the second half we invited the audience, people watching at home through a Twitch live stream, to set the mission goals for the remaining dives. And it was great! They found parts of the debris field in a region we hadn’t even considered surveying.

The power of this connected ecosystem means that with enough creativity, you can do almost anything.


So now I’m going to shift into the final arc of this adventure. The culmination of where I think we need to go as ocean scientists and ocean conservationists building the future of ocean engagement online and off. It’s been a long journey, from laying the foundation of storytelling and narrative structure, to finding the hero, to pushing our campaigns beyond mere subsistence, creating something transformative, to welcoming the fourth hero into our ranks, but the reality is that we are just getting started.

We have a tremendous amount of technology at our disposal and we now have the ability to share not just our stories, not just the outcomes of marine research or the objectives of conservation, but also the knowledge and the tools that can empower ocean stakeholders to forge their own paths, to write their own stories.


This is Oceanography for Everyone. It’s the natural evolution of everything we’ve done through Southern Fried Science, everything we’ve learned about building and maintaining an active, engaged community, about sharing knowledge and providing guidance through online tools, and tearing down barriers to access, access to the fundamental tools of marine science, for ocean stakeholders. If Southern Fried Science began with this vision of humanizing scientists, the closing step in that heroic epic and the call to adventure for the next is this idea that anyone can be a scientist, can contribute meaningfully to ocean science and conservation. That the limitation should not be affiliation with a research institute or NGO, access to research grants, access to massively expensive capital equipment and vessels.

So what is Oceanography for Everyone?

It’s hardware, it’s software, and it’s a community. We started with a CTD. CTD are one of the most important tools for oceanographic research, they allow us to measure the basic parameters of ocean health. They are also exorbitantly expensive, with the cheapest running north of $6000. We thought we could do better, so we built the OpenCTD, a CTD that can be built for $300, that performs as well as a commercial unit. If you were at my talk earlier this week, I presented some of the data from our third round of prototypes, which are now field ready.

It’s also open-source, which means there’s no patents, no copyrights, no restrictions on the use of its hardware and software. We’ve intentionally designed it around materials that can be relatively easily sourced and that don’t require advanced electronics skills. The full instructions are available for free through the Oceanography for Everyone website and someone who has never held a soldering iron before can conceivably build one in a weekend, with plenty of time left over to go out into the field.

It’s eminently hackable. If you want to measure pH, redox, dissolved oxygen, you can do that, and the online community is there to help you.

From that beginning, we added more tools: a 3D printable Niskin bottle which costs pennies against the thousand plus dollar commercial units. It’s already designed to integrate with underwater robots or aerial drones to take water samples where divers fear to tread. And yes, the next phase is building a fully open-source programmable rosette.


This summer, these tools began appearing in the ocean, in Florida where the Niskin bottles are being used to collect water from sewage outflows, in the Channel Islands, in Guadalupe. They’ll be going on expeditions later this year out of France and Singapore and Papua New Guinea. And already, users are building their own, sometimes for research, but just as often for the sake of sheer curiosity, to connect a little more intimately with their local waterways.

But it doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. Through Oceanography for Everyone, people can share their data, upload their notes, ask questions and connect with researchers, allowing them to contribute to the wealth of ocean data.

And a lot of this has been enabled by partnership with another community of ocean explorers and hardware hackers, one that you’ve almost certainly noticed in the background throughout this adventure: the OpenROV.


The OpenROV is a low-cost, though very capable and exceptionally hackable underwater robot it’s open-source (though the company just launched a second model geared towards a more consumer market), and it has been shipped all over the world. This map is two years out of date, but each dot is an ROV delivered or built, and today there are 4000 more of them than when this map was made.

These kinds of low-cost underwater robots can empower ocean stakeholders in the same way that the aqualung empowered the last generation, by making the ocean even more accessible. With an internet connection, these little bots can be controlled remotely, we’ve had students in Kansas fly over reefs in Papua New Guinea, and they can let people dive deep into the ocean who otherwise wouldn’t.

The ocean is 97% of our world’s biosphere and still largely unexplored. We are only now learning about crises that are well past their tipping point. By empowering communities to contribute to ocean monitoring, we gain thousands of new observers, stretched across the world.


OpenROV in Sweden by Joakim Karlsson

We’re approaching a moment I’ve taken to calling the Aqualung Singularity, and yes, I am aware how deeply nerdy that name is, but let’s be honest, this whole talk is full of super nerdy in jokes and fish pins. The Aqualung Singularity is the point when, thanks to technology, thanks to the interconnectedness of the internet, choosing to go out and explore the ocean becomes as simple as going into the back yard and flipping over rocks. The youngest ROV pilot I’ve trained is 3, she is probably better than you. Students can build these tools, stakeholders in remote regions can build these tools, we can use them in high school STEM education, we can use them for research, and we can use them for play, having fun in the ocean is an important part of developing a relationship with the sea. We can let people connect and control them through the internet. We’re even building aerial drones that can survey and take samples nearly continuously.

As access to the ocean beyond the shore becomes easy, ubiquitous, and cheap, a whole new world of possibilities opens before us.


OpenROV Trident by OpenROV, Amphibia by Aerotestra

If I could summarize my vision for the future of oceans online, it would be this: We can inspire our audience by sharing our adventures and discoveries through the tools made available to us via a connected internet; we can engage with a committed core community by bringing them with us on those adventures, either physically or through the tools of telepresence;

But the greatest potential, the truly transformative power of this continuously evolving digital ecosystem is that we can share not just our stories, but our tools, so that others can take what we have created, make it theirs, and go out have their own adventures.

Thank you.


All the pictures used in this presentation were either by me or cited here. If you go to southernfriedscience.com/imcc you’ll find links to all the research, resources, and websites that I mentioned as well as, in a day or two, a full transcript and all slides.

I have to thank my incredible team at Southern Fried Science: David Shiffman, Amy Freitag, Chris Parsons, Kersey Sturdivant, Chuck Bangley, Michelle Jewel, and Sarah Keartes, as well as my co-organizers at Oceanography for Everyone, Kersey Sturdivant and Russell Neches. Ocean First Education provided us a grant to conduct ROV workshops and the OpenCTD was supported via crowdfunding.

Hey Team Ocean! Southern Fried Science is entirely supported by contributions from our readers. Head over to Patreon to help keep our servers running and fund new and novel ocean outreach projects. Even a dollar or two a month will go a long way towards keeping our website online and producing the high-quality marine science and conservation content you love.