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Vessel density maps: help us make a difference

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If we asked people what is the first human activity that comes to mind when thinking about the ocean, most would probably say shipping. We’ve used ships to move people and goods across waterways for millennia. We’ve developed trade and settled in remote areas of our planet; we’ve fought brutal wars, but also inspired generations of poets enthralled by the irresistible charm of the ocean.

Today maritime transport remains the backbone of the global economy and the cleanest mode of transport, if we consider emissions per tonne/km. However, it also has adverse impacts on the marine environment, which are cause for great concern.

This is why we increasingly need more data on shipping, so as to estimate how shipping affects the status of our oceans. In 2016, at EMODnet Human Activities we asked our users which new datasets they needed the most. Nearly all of them replied a vessel density map, which is a simple way to show vessel movement patterns across a given area. They are typically created based on Automatic Identification System (AIS) data, generated by a tracking system originally used to avoid collision and accidents.

Vessel Density Map


International regulations require certain vessels be fitted with AIS, which generates messages including information such as ship’s name, identifier, position, speed and status. The messages are received by satellite and coastal receivers, thus making it possible to create a picture of vessel movements in real time.

The biggest problem with AIS data is that they’re not easily available. In theory, in Europe they could be available via SafeSeaNet, a programme established by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) to enhance maritime safety. However, the data include confidential information and are not released publicly. In some Member States, it is possible to be given access to these data, by filing a request to the competent administration, but it’s a time-consuming process, and there’s no guarantee of obtaining a full picture, if one asks each Member State individually.

An alternative is to purchase AIS data from commercial providers who have their own satellite networks, but the cost of a full dataset (EU waters) may vary from 30,000 to 200,000 euro. Plus, you need to factor in the cost of processing the data, as well the cost of making the map itself.

HELCOM AISNonetheless, an increasing number of institutions are making available AIS data to the public. In 2016 HELCOM developed the AIS Explorer, a tool which enables comparing Baltic Sea shipping traffic intensity maps. The Norwegian project Havbase also does something similar, and covers the Baltic and the North Sea. Denmark and other countries have also decided to make available AIS data. However, these remain isolated initiatives, and there is no complete map of EU waters that is freely available to researchers and industry.

So, we have decided to purchase the data from a commercial provider and create our own map. Our users will be allowed to view and download the map, and use it for commercial and non-commercial purposes alike. Granted, doing it is not going to be easy. There’s a ginormous amount of data to process, and a variety of methods that could be used. So, we’re going to need your help! If you’ve done something similar in the past, if you want to share your ideas or your methods, please reach out and tell us your story. We want to make sure that what we’ll be doing is useful for the maritime community as a whole.

This post is the first of a long series, through which we’ll keep you apprised of the progress we make and the challenges we’ll inevitably encounter. We’ve just got started, help us make a difference!

The information and views set out in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Commission. Neither the European Commission nor any person acting on the European Commission's behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information therein.

June 5th, 2017 | Written by

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