June 2020 OES Beacon

Improving Global and Regional Ocean Observing through Best Practices and Standards

Jay Pearlman (IEEE), Pauline Simpson (IODE), Johannes Karstensen (GEOMAR), Pier Luigi Buttigieg (AWI), Francoise Pearlman (FourBridges), Christoph Waldmann (MARUM), Cora Hoerstmann (AWI)

As many of us know, the oceans play a key role in global issues such as climate change, food security, and human health. However, there are challenges to a real understanding of the oceans including their vast dimensions and internal complexity, efficient monitoring and predicting of the planet’s oceans evolutionary dynamics. Thus, the effort of ocean observing and analyses must be a collaborative effort of both regional and global scale. The first and foremost requirement for such collaborative ocean observing is the need to follow well-defined and reproducible methods across activities: from strategies for structuring observing systems, sensor deployment and usage, and the generation of data and information products, to ethical and governance aspects when executing ocean observing. Thus, “ocean observing” are all activities of the value chain from preparing and conducting observations to impacts on society through applications of information. To meet the urgent planet-wide challenges we face, common methods across all aspects of ocean observing should be broadly adopted by the ocean community and, where appropriate, should evolve into. Best Practices and Standards. Thus , these Best Practices and Standards not only make the life of individual scientists easier but also contribute to a better usage of the collected information by other groups and organizations across the value chain.

Figure 1 The Ocean Observing Value Chain from observations to users

Best practices bring many benefits such as quality and consistency of observations, interoperability of data, efficiency (don’t reinvent the wheel), and transparency. However, Best Practices are scattered and can be hard to find; they can be lost when a project ends, promising methods may not be shared, and work to create a Best Practice is often not acknowledged. To reduce this fragmentation, there is now an open access, permanent, digital repository of Best Practices documentation (oceanbestpractices.org) that is part of the Ocean Best Practices System (OBPS). But the system is broader. In addition to the repository, the OBPS includes a peer reviewed journal research topic (https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/7173/best-practices-in-ocean-observing), a forum for community discussion and a training activity for creating and using Best Practices. Together, these components serve to realize a core objective of the OBPS, which is to enable the ocean community to create superior methods for every activity in ocean observing from research to operations to applications that are agreed upon and broadly adopted across communities.

The OBPS implementation is built on a vision of “a future where there are agreed and broadly adopted methods across ocean research, operations and applications” – and a mission “to provide coordinated and sustained global access to methods and Best Practices across ocean sciences to foster collaboration and innovation” (Pearlman et al. 2019). The importance of this was recognized by the UNESCO Intergovernmental Ocean Commission (IOC), which accepted the OBPS as an IOC project in July 2019. It is operated as a collaboration of the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS).

Figure 2 The Ocean Best Practices System

There are many debates on what methods should be included in the OBPS to further the vision and mission. People will say, “I do not know if my practice is best, so I will not participate.” Others say “we have integrated standard operating practices (SOP) to guide our work – these are our Best Practices but we don’t use the name Best Practices”.   Thus, the OBPS accepts all forms of methods documentation such as SOPs, manuals, etc., in addition to Best Practices. Of course, methods are not static. Technology changes, applications move to new areas with different environments and skill bases. The OBPS provides a place where Best Practices can be collected and compared and where their evolution can be documented. To do this they must be readily discoverable and accessible. The OBPS has developed a semantic-based search user interface (Buttigieg, et al, 2019), which finds and then tags documents to help users sort through the more than 1000 ocean Best Practices in the OBPS Repository. These Best Practices are available at oceanbestpractices.org.

The support and use of Best Practices are a community-wide activity in which many facets of ocean observing participate. There is an annual workshop in which scientists and engineers,

both young professionals and experienced practitioners, come together to discuss community needs and OBPS capabilities. The latest workshop, the Ocean Best Practices Workshop III (OBP Workshop III), was held at the International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) in Oostende, Belgium, 02-03 December 2019. It was organized with support from IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society, IODE and GOOS with the objective of better understanding the future needs of the ocean observing community. The workshop outcomes were defined as: (1) an articulated strategic direction for ocean Best Practices; (2) recommendations for Best Practice synthesis; (3) the relation between standards and Best Practices; and (4) recommendations for further Ocean Best Practices System development/implementation, embedding outcomes from community input.

The 2019 Workshop III encouraged maximum audience participation and was structured with hour-long panels followed by discussion. This format was effective in stimulating ideas and discussions to lay out a future vision of ocean Best Practices and how OBPS will contribute to improving ocean observing in the decade to come. The panels addressed:

  • Community inputs for Best Practices
  • Key Advances in Ocean Observing and in related Technologies
  • Synthesizing Best Practices
  • Standards and Best Practices
  • Capacity Building and Training
  • Best Practices Vision for the Decade

Breakout Sessions were also a major part of the agenda, to provide opportunities for participants to share insights and, importantly, to make recommendations to the Panel on Vision for the Next Decade and ultimately the OBPS Steering Group. A detailed proceedings is available at Simpson, et al., 2020, which covers the discussion and recommendations. This paper will address some of the key recommendations.

Figure 3 Evolution of Best practices (de facto) and Standards (de jure). From Hoerstmann et al 2020.

Standards and Best Practices

An area that created a lot of discussion, led by Christoph Waldmann, was the relation and balance between standards and Best Practices. The two are closely related as Best Practices may evolve into standards while standards can leverage Best Practices descriptions for their detailed implementation. Both are developed through iterative processes that require community engagement and adoption. Culturally, the ocean research community generally works through Best Practices while the marine operations community uses many standards (for cables, ships, etc.).

This depends on the value/benefit to each of the communities.  Recognizing this, the standards and Best Practices discussions noted that:

  • Collecting these Best Practices in a central repository, the Ocean Best Practices System (OBPS), is of high value for the ocean observing communities and science community as a whole.
  • Not all Best Practices have to be transferred to standards. It depends on the value/benefit for the community.
  • Mission critical observations, for instance Tsunami forecasting systems, need standards.
  • Metadata of data is very important for data users. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has developed the Observing System Capability Analysis and Review (OSCAR) tool which targets all users interested in the status and the planning of global observing systems as well as data users looking for instrument specifications at platform level.

Recommendations from the breakout included:

  • Development of a more elaborate structure for the OBPS portal should be considered that makes the access to the required information more
  • Pilot projects shall be initiated to assist this process where a certain number of different use cases shall be elaborated and act as template for other This will include capacity building aspects. Champions could be the cases of the carbon measuring community, ARGO, GO-SHIP, and HF RADAR. The promotion of communities like the glider community would benefit from this effort.
  • It should be considered to connect OBPS Best Practices to GitHub and similar capabilities.

The importance of pilot projects to help understand the implementation of standards and Best Practices was noted in multiple discussions.

Capacity Development

The panel on capacity development recommended the creation of a “product” (e.g., peer-reviewed paper, a Best Practice, web page, training module), which would describe various types of capacity development activities (with their pros and cons) in relation to various types of Best Practices in OBPS and beyond.  Such a product would not aim at providing a solution to every case, but would provide guidance on the most suitable capacity development modality according to the need, Essential Ocean Variable/platform that forms the subject of the capacity development, area of the ocean observing value chain being targeted, career stage and geographical location of target audience, as well as available budgets, etc.

While developing this product, the compilation of all the different capacity development modes highlighted should be complemented by modes previously not considered: hackathons, problem-based learning, student projects, collaborative research projects, infrastructure investments/donations, mentoring programs, training for policy makers (and school teachers), formal academic programs such as university degrees, and others to be determined. The most suitable mode depends on the participant’s current knowledge and available resources. The OBPS has initiated a survey on available capacity development programs as a follow up to this discussion at the workshop.

Panel on Best Practices Vision for the Decade

Figure 4 Panelists for the Best Practices Vision for the Decade Panel

The panel was led by Anya Waite. Its purpose was to integrate the discussions of the workshop into a series of recommendations for the OBPS evolution.

Figure 4 Panelists for the Best Practices Vision for the Decade Panel

The characteristics of a decadal vision were broad and reflect the technical and social aspects of bringing together the community and working toward broad interoperability through the use of Best Practices, Standards and other means. The “strawman” characteristics were:

  • Interoperability of data & knowledge & semantics
  • Fully FAIR and known Data
  • Excellent Data Management Plans
  • 100% clear Provenance where data comes from and where it is being used
  • Excellent Communication
  • Trust in data, scientists and the general
  • Value to Society

For interoperability, both data and knowledge interoperability (at all levels) needs to be part of the discussion. Additional facets of interoperability include legal interoperability, syntactic/semantic interoperability, etc. When we use the term interoperability does it mean for the ocean community or for the OBPS? It is both. We have an opportunity, to engage the different communities and challenge these communities about the availability of interoperable data within and across communities/disciplines to support outcomes reaching across the value chain. These use data interoperability as a “model” for a vision, but the characteristics are applicable to the Best Practices that cover the value chain from sensing to applications to societal impact. The panel identified that, to play an effective role in furthering this vision, there are certain key attributes of the OBPS:

  • Portal/User Interface
  • Synthesis and Standards and Accreditation
  • Outreach and Communication
  • Capacity Development and Retention

Participants in the workshop were asked to rank these through a real time poll. The results are shown in Figure 5.

The lighter distributed colors show the voting patterns for each of the four subjects. The participants identified the portal/interface as the highest priority with outreach/communications second. The message is that participants believe that the OBPS must continue its move from passive accumulation of BPs towards engagement and collaboration. Upgrades to the interface are already under way. Outreach and communication – including developing a communication plan – needs strengthening beyond the activities that have been done so far. It is interesting to reflect that the convergence among similar Best Practices and the creation of standards was the lowest in the ranking of the four. Standards have not been readily accepted by ocean observers due to the top down nature of standards creation. For the data and information practitioners, both de jure and de facto standards such as OGC WMS or NetCDF formats have found growing acceptance.

The final recommendations of the panel and the workshop focused on six areas of development, some long-term, but many for the next year or two. A detailed discussion of these is available in the workshop proceedings (Simpson, et al., 2020). The development areas were:

 A Five-Page Description of Best Practices for Best Practices (BP4BP). This supports community development and submission to the OBPS. The paper was written following the workshop and is available in the OBPS repository (Hoerstmann, et al., 2020)

Position Paper to Journal Editors. Peer reviewed paper authors are more and more being required to publish the data underlying the research outcomes. The workshop recommended that the methods (Best Practices) used to collect and analyze the data should also be published as part of the peer-reviewed research. We recognize in making this recommendation that making BP citation a requirement might be too strong, as we don’t have full convergence on each BP. It is possible that some people won’t agree with the BPs that have been published and will instead cite their own practice in a paper.

Connect OBPS to other repositories. This can include GitHub for software and selected fora for community discussions. In response, the OBPS is implementing such a forum for community dialogues.

Outreach and Communications. A July 2019 Survey on ocean Best Practices showed that approximately 30% of the 450 respondents knew about the OBPS. Of those who knew about it, 80-90% would recommend its use. This is a clear indicator that more outreach is  required.

Figure 5 Ranking of areas for further OBPS development

Pilot Project on Synthesis.  In the Breakout session on synthesis, there was a discussion on possible pilot case studies to address synthesis among Best Practices. Some of the areas suggested included: Microplastics; e-DNA;          Acoustics (sound); Capture fisheries; Machine learning; and Harmonization of metadata. It is expected that the workshop in 2020 will address some of these options

Capacity Development Pilot Project – There are a lot of varied methodologies that are being used for capacity development. In terms of a repository of  training methods/Best Practices, the panel acknowledged that it would take significant work. This area follows up the discussions at the OceanObs’19 Conference (http://www.oceanobs19.net), which made similar recommendations.

Workshop Participation

The importance of engineering participation in the creation of Best Practices cannot be understated. The workshop was fortunate to have a mix of science, engineering and operations expertise. Participants in the workshop are shown in Figure 6. It was this participation that made the workshop what it was.


Figure 6 Workshop participants from many countries and disciplines contributed to the discussions and outcomes


The organizers. gratefully acknowledge the Ocean Best Practices System Steering Group for providing organizational, and/or logistical and in-kind support for Workshop III. We particularly acknowledge the co-sponsorship of IEEE, which enabled broader participation in the workshop, particularly of young professionals. In addition, co-sponsorship was provided by IODE and the NSF-sponsored OceanObs Research Coordination Network (NSF grant 1728913, Research Coordination Networks (RCN): Sustained Multidisciplinary Ocean Observations). Participants included members from the following IEEE OES Technology Committees: Current, Wave, Turbulence Measurement and Applications; Ocean Observation Systems and Environmental Sustainability; Ocean Remote Sensing; and Standards. Also, Roberto Petroccia YP Boost 2019-2020, attended the workshop.

Material for this article was extracted from the proceedings of the Evolving and Sustaining Ocean Best Practices Workshop III 2019 (Simpson, et al., 2020)


  1. Buttigieg, P. L., Simpson, P., Caltagirone, S. and Pearlman, J.S.  (2019) The Ocean Best Practices System – Supporting a Transparent and Accessible Ocean. IEEE. OCEANS 2019 MTS/IEEE Seattle.
  2. Hörstmann, C.; Buttigieg, P.L.; Simpson, P.; Pearlman, J. and Waite, A.M. (2020) A Best Practice for Developing Best Practices in Ocean Observation (BP4BP): Supporting Methodological Evolution through Actionable Documentation. Paris, France, UNESCO, 26pp. (Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission Manuals and Guides No. 84). (IOC/2020/MG/84). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.25607/OBP-781
  3. Pearlman, J., Bushnell, M., Coppola, L. et al. (2019) Evolving and Sustaining Ocean Best Practices and Standards for the Next Decade. Frontiers in Marine Science, 6:277, 19pp. DOI:10.3389/fmars.2019.00277
  4. Simpson, P., Pearlman, F. and Pearlman J. (eds) (2020) Evolving and Sustaining Ocean Best Practices Workshop III, 02– 03 December 2019, UNESCO/IOC Project Office for IODE, Oostende, Belgium: Proceedings. Oostende, Belgium, IOC- IODE: GOOS and IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society, 37pp. DOI: 10.25607/OBP-788