Breaking Down Barriers to Data Accessibility In the World’s Second Largest Reef System

Blog 03 Dec 2021
WCS Technical Coordinator for Marine Research Myles Phillips talks about how MERMAID is making it easy to train the next generation of coral reef conservation leaders in Belize, how data in MERMAID is helping his team search for coral reef strongholds, and his hopes for truly adaptive management in Belize.

Myles, you’re one of MERMAID’s latest field collaborators and have been hugely important to the growth of the platform in the Caribbean and Atlantic. Can you tell us about your start in Belize, and how you first got to know MERMAID?

When I was brought onto the WCS Belize team, the project I started with was standardizing and validating longstanding coral reef data sets. I was working with a bunch of Excel files with different formats for every single year of monitoring - different people with different input styles, saving data in different places. It took months just to get everything together.

At some point I thought I had done a really good job manually standardizing all of the data, but then when we started working with it, we found more inconsistencies, which I would have to go in and fix [laughs]. You could say I have a very intimate appreciation for all the trouble and time that MERMAID saves us these days.

I spent two years working on those historical data sets, until the MERMAID team showed up and said - Hey! We have a program that can help you fix this! I spent a lot of time with Emily Darling and Kim Fisher, working on improvements to the platform to make it more functional for this region. It’s been really productive.

How have things changed for you and the team since that first big excel sheet project in 2019?

Things are extremely quick now, extremely quick. I like MERMAID because I can see my data immediately, everything is available in the dashboard right away - I can take it straight from the end of data entry to reporting, and more or less get the level of analysis that I need. It makes data entry really easy through multiple levels of automation, and validates data as you go.

Since COVID, the team has been remote and having all of our data online on MERMAID at the tip of my fingers makes it so easy to share. I’ve had people from other organizations reach out about using our MERMAID data, and I love being able to send it over to them without being worried or embarrassed by it [laughs].

I also love the cloud storage. When I first started assembling data from predecessors manually into one big archive, I always thought - what if their storage had been damaged? It was a huge risk. I know now that because my data is in the cloud I can always get it, it’s been amazing.

Any interesting discoveries now that all of that monitoring data is online?

I recently ran a report on our surveys at the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, and it was surprising. While I was diving out there I was a little discouraged by what I was seeing, there was lots of macro algae and not as much coral as I’d like. But, when we entered the data and MERMAID gave us our results back, it showed average coral cover was actually 25% which is impressive for the Caribbean. I thought - oh! I was wrong! This is actually good news. As for whether or not it’s a reef stronghold in Belize, I don’t want to promise that yet.

The thing about the Belize coral reef system that’s really interesting is that it’s so massive - the Mesoamerican reef by itself is the second largest coral reef system in the world, and Belize makes up a huge part of that. It’s so vast that there are some very remote areas that don’t get a lot of attention or pressure from fishing, but a lot of it is very shallow and easily accessible. In front of Belize City for a couple miles out, the water is only 11 feet deep. So, the reefs here are really accessible and we have seen areas hit hard by overfishing. We have a strong fishing tradition in Belize, but it’s like anything else in the world - things were less harmful when there were fewer people doing them. With population growth, we have a larger number of  people engaging in traditional extractive resource use, which just means there’s a lot more pressure on the system. The same monitoring data that showed higher than expected coral cover also showed fish biomass levels that weren’t so great.

You mentioned that availability of data for your team is important - who are you working with?

Like anything in the nonprofit world, people move around a lot, and there can be a loss of capacity as that happens. You can end up in a situation where you’re constantly needing to train new people in basic, foundational conservation work.

In the last couple of years, I’ve started taking on student interns, which has made me appreciate MERMAID even more. The platform is so easy to use it resolves a lot of the issues we’ve had working with entry level people processing conservation data. It makes it a fun and educational experience for my interns - they’re learning all the scientific names, I’ve seen it become a really rewarding challenge. The dashboard itself also allows me to look at what’s been entered from day to day, to keep track of progress and pick up on any little mistakes.

I’d really like to see a situation where we have more easy to use, accessible conservation technology tools like MERMAID to continue bringing down that barrier to entry in the field. We don’t lack willing people, it’s just that sometimes the capacity and financial resources to actually learn how to collect data properly aren’t there. MERMAID is eroding that barrier for our team, and helping me train the next generation.

You recently co-authored a study that got quite a bit of press, about nitrogen runoff harming Belize’s coral reefs. We spend a lot of time thinking about threats to reefs - what are your hopes for the future for these ecosystems?

Belize has been one of the most amazing places I’ve ever worked. There is such a demonstration of camaraderie and collaboration in conservation and fisheries management. There’s a working group for everything, and they get a lot of good work done.

When it comes to putting data to work for conservation, accessibility is the key obstacle. You can’t use data when you can’t access it, when you don’t know it exists, when it’s disorganized. MERMAID breaks down so many barriers to accessibility - it helps us make data available not just for the people tending it, but for anyone who wants to work with it. That accessibility is key to creating the partnerships and connections we need to protect coral reefs.

My vision for the future is for us to use data to adaptively and responsively manage ecosystems, to leverage those networks and relationships in Belize to move towards greater sustainability and healthier ecosystems, away from the harmful practices we’ve relied on in the past. I want us to be in the position to influence decision makers, and I think MERMAID is a step in the right direction for us because it helps me capitalize on Belize’s strengths - community and partnership - by allowing me to share what we know. That accessibility will be the difference for us when it comes to protecting our marine ecosystems.

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Myles Phillips is the Technical Coordinator for Marine Research for the WCS Belize program. You can follow the team’s work @WCSBelize. Join Myles for a day in the field with MERMAID.