Research IT Services


Visualisation solution tames a sea of shipping data

8 March 2016

Expertise and insight supplied by Research IT Services (RITS) have released the full potential of pioneering work on a key 'green' challenge: the need to cut polluting emissions produced by the economically vital global shipping industry.

RITS's Research Software Development Group (RSDG) delivered a powerful, flexible software solution geared to the specific needs of ShipViz - a UCL Energy Institute project whose aims include manipulating, interrogating and visualising big volumes of data on the speed, movement and type of ships sailing through a maritime Emissions Control Area (ECA).

This simple-to-use solution not only equipped the ShipViz team to extract maximum value from the data at minimum cost and draw rapid, robust conclusions about the ECA's effectiveness - working closely with RSDG also sharpened the team's own software engineering and script-writing skills for future use.

" The software solution that RSDG delivered was a perfect fit for our needs and a vital contributor to the success of ShipViz. - Dr Julia Schaumeier, UCL Energy Institute

Lowering emissions on the high seas

Carbon dioxide 2.2%, sulphur oxides 12%, nitrogen oxides 13%: for an array of pollutants, international shipping accounts for a significant slice of global emissions. Effectively mitigating pollution from any source, of course, demands policy measures based on a sound foundation of solid evidence - and the shipping sector is absolutely no exception.

So, are ECAs introduced by the International Maritime Organisation really encouraging ships to slow down, burn less fuel and produce fewer emissions? Backed by the European Climate Foundation, Dr Tristan Smith's Shipping Group at the UCL Energy Institute addressed this question as part of a 6-month study focusing on the North American ECA, which incorporates waters adjacent to the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts and the Hawaiian Islands.

To form the basis of this aspect of the project, the team pinpointed a variety of data sources:

  • An automatic vessel identification system that could provide information on individual container-ship movements during specified time periods.
  • Fleet registers of container vessels, including a wealth of details ranging from ship size to primary fuel type.
  • Geographical information detailing the exact extent of the North American ECA.

The key to success has been the ability not simply to harvest an ocean of data and ingest around 15 million data points covering almost 5000 different vessels, but also to extract value from this resource and present comprehensible results in easily digestible visual formats such as maps, charts and graphs.

"Engaging an external consultant to build the right software solution would have been time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, and they wouldn't have had the science background or appreciation of the academic research environment critical to our needs", says Dr Julia Schaumeier, Technical Lead on the project. "That's why we turned to RITS."

Taking a view on visualisation


A map of shipping data created using CartoDB

"I worked very closely with the ShipViz team over several months", explains Raquel Alegre of RSDG. "The project presented the classic challenge of identifying, assembling and implementing a solution that could be up and running very quickly, would be easy and intuitive to use, but would still meet every technical requirement."

After carefully considering the merits of several potential tools (e.g. QGIS, MapBox, OpenLayers), CartoDB was selected as the basis of a solution that could tick every box from a data interrogation, analysis and visualisation viewpoint and from a data storage, security and reliability perspective too.

CartoDB is a widely used open-source data analysis and mapping tool that enables display on web browsers. To ensure the sensitive, restricted-access data underpinning the project could be kept securely on local servers, a full stack was adapted and manually installed at UCL, while a PostGIS (Geographic Information System) database included in CartoDB enabled geographic queries to be performed smoothly and swiftly.

"Choosing CartoDB minimised the programming load on the ShipViz team," Raquel comments. "Moreover, it meant they could harness user support and advice provided by existing open-source communities."

The solution generated three key benefits, each of which added real value to ShipViz:

  • Cost - engaging Raquel Alegre for 33 days at a total cost comfortably under £10,000 proved crucial to the project meeting its goals on time and on budget.
  • Quickness - the solution resulted in fast workflows, rapid identification of requirements and rapid execution of actions, for example allowing the team to cut query times to as little as 5 minutes (compared to 1 hour when using a standard relational database).
  • Quality of outcomes - speed, sophistication, robustness and reassurance all combined to allow the team to maximise its productivity and optimise the reliability and accuracy of the project's results.

"One really useful outcome was the ability both to visualise the data on a static map and to animate images over time and produce videos for conferences to engage the audience better," Julia Schaumeier says. "The software solution that RSDG delivered was a perfect fit for our needs and a vital contributor to the success of ShipViz."

A clear course ahead

ShipViz came up with some intriguing - and surprising - findings. The team discovered that the North American ECA had not triggered any significant behavioural change, with about 50% of vessels slowing down more than they did before its introduction and about 50% slowing down less than before. These results represent a highly useful input to policy-making as the shipping industry plots a route towards more effective emissions reduction.

Closer to home, working so successfully with RSDG has not just provided Dr Schaumeier and her colleagues with an excellent software solution that is now available to other universities on an open-source basis - it has equipped them with enhanced software skills transferable to all kinds of research scenarios.

"The training and tuition that Raquel has given us, from bolting software tools together to using JavaScript to create graphs from data, will be invaluable as we move forward," says Julia. "Meeting needs, solving problems, upgrading skillsets - RSDG really has empowered us to tackle future challenges with huge confidence, as well as steering the best possible course on ShipViz."


Conference paper

J. Schaumeier, R. Alegre, T.W.P. Smith, J. Hetherington (2015). Investigating Shipping Behaviour in Emission Control Areas: A Visual Approach to Data Analysis. Paper for the Shipping in Changing Climates Conference, Glasgow, 24-25 November 2015.

Photo credit

Container ships @ the Port of Oakland, California by Daniel Ramirez from Honolulu, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons