02/05/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2014

Geospatial Revolution

Most of us involved in the ocean are aware of GPS, the Global Positioning System technology that enables precise placement in space and time to enhance navigational accuracy and the resultant safety. Ships no longer navigate by dead reckoning or even by sighting the sun or stars; indeed, celestial navigation is no longer taught at the maritime academies as constant accurate positioning can be placed on viewable electronic charts, verified by multiple satellite connections and moving in real time with the ship.

GPS has found its way into our phones and automobiles as well, and so we can discard our dog-eared maps to follow a step by step itinerary, street by street, narrated by a voice that seems always calm, even when you mistake the way of a one-way street. Even more convenience is to hand, a few pokes at your phone to find and then lead you through the urban wilderness to the best burger or your favorite sushi bar.

GPS has also added a significant element to the gathering and interpretation of data. Ships at sea suddenly can become research vessels, monitoring or sampling along a prescribed route and accumulating enormous volumes of information that has, in the past, been often left unused or awaiting the right scientist with the right grant to turn into some useful application. Over the past decades, we have become expert and voracious in our gathering of such data -- from underwater arrays of fixed observation systems, floating buoys or random drones, which have been justified by the need for ever-greater understanding of the ocean surface, water column, and sub-sea floor. What's next?

From this rapid growth of data, along with exponentially increased computation power, new visualization technologies, and the realization that the integration of these elements can lead to increased documentation of dynamic and overlaid data, has provided new tools for planning and more efficient engagement with natural, built, and social systems. It has been dubbed the "Geospatial Revolution."

I was first exposed to this approach at the Scripps Institute in California during a visit ten years ago. I was invited into their visualization laboratory to be shown a fascinating presentation of superimposed data sets, commissioned by the California Department of Transportation. There were four: first, the subsurface geology and structure of the state's area; second, the historical statewide record of seismic activity; third, a detailed map of the state's roads, bridges, and tunnels; and, fourth, financial estimates of costs relating to the reconstruction of those structures to new earthquake protection standards. The outcome was to relate all those conditions and establish a priority of projects in relation to funds available from one year to the next. It was an astonishing feat of interpretation and prioritization that rationalized planning decisions and budget allocations with a new and very effective method.

In the ocean, this technology is being applied to definition of proposed marine protected areas, as a tool to correlate coastal geography; charts of coral reefs, coastal marshes, and other natural resources; species distribution; traditional and commercial fishing grounds; and patterns of local and transitional ship movements. The conflict between these interests has been evident for a long time. Now, however, there is the new method of integrating the information to see where are the critical points of connection and disconnection. The so-called stakeholders now have a place to come together for understanding of interests, of opportunities for compromise, and of conflict resolution through consensus agreement of certain modifications of behavior and patterns of use to reduce tension, disputes, and adamant, often political, resistance to change.

Those attempting to plan, or govern, in these areas -- be they local, regional, national, or international -- have not had these tools before. They have been thwarted by conventional inaccuracies, vested interests, ideological determinations that bear no relation to reality, and aggressive opposition. Thus, the idea of marine protected areas has been opposed by oil, shipping, or fishing interests who fear some regulatory or exclusionary limit on their activities. But that is not always the case. And in more and more instances, these kinds of geo-spatial analyses of comprehensive data not only reassures and dilutes conflict, but also suggests ways to clarify and improve the situation through agreement and cooperation. It is an encouraging prospect for future governance of critical areas worldwide.

So watch out for the geospatial revolution. It's coming to a problem near you -- whether on land or sea.