Interview

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Interview with Pierre Bahurel

Director General from MERCATOR OCEAN

Firstly, can you give us a picture of Mercator Ocean and what you do?

Mercator Ocean is the French center for ocean monitoring and forecasting. We deliver a worldwide service providing three-dimensional digital information on the ocean state with real time bulletins and data for the past periods. We design, develop and run forecasting systems based on ocean numerical modelling fed by ocean observations, to describe the physical and biogeochemical states of the ocean at any time, above and beneath the surface, at global and regional scales: temperature, salinity, currents, sea surface height, thickness of ice, chlorophyll, nutrients…We are a privately-owned non-profit company, funded by five major French institutions involved in operational oceanography, our privileged users : CNRS (National Center of Scientific Research), Ifremer (French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea), IRD (Institute of Research for Development), Météo-France and SHOM (Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service of the French Navy). The staff counts about 60 people, we’re based in Toulouse in France, I am the Director General.

Mr Bahurel, could you tell us a bit about the history of Mercator Ocean, how your organization started and what is your mission?

Our story started 20 years ago, when a group of thirty or so scientists and oceanographers decided to achieve a common goal: the operational depiction and forecasting of the ocean, in the same way that a weather forecast depicts the atmosphere. And we set directly the ambition to the level of a worldwide coverage with a high-resolution capacity for monitoring eddies and current meanders. The idea was to take stock of continuous observation of the ocean by the altimetry satellites such as Topex/Poseidon (Fr/US) and the ERS series (European Remote Sensing, Europe), of research studies at the leading edge in numerical ocean modeling and data assimilation and of the first pilot models of forecasting systems. This ambitious concept of an operational oceanography system capable of real-time description and forecasting of the entire ocean, both in terms of surface and depth, was first expressed by the group in 1995 through the creation of the “Mercator project”, named after the Flemish cartographer of the sixteenth century who mapped the world, produced one of the very first atlases and bequeathed one of the most widely-used map projection systems to today’s oceanographers. I became “Mercator project” manager.

What has been the greatest challenge Mercator Ocean encountered?

In the beginning, I would say patience. From prototypes to prototypes, we had to wait 6 years until the first Mercator bulletin rolled off the production line in 2001! From that day, the dream of a real-time operational oceanographic system meeting the needs of users finally came true. The bulletin images published on Internet with 800 maps every week describing currents, temperature and salinity in the North and Equatorial Atlantic, from the surface to the bottom and up to two weeks ahead of time. It was a first step but still, we achieved the first objective to demonstrate the feasibility of operational oceanographic forecasting and this has led Mercator Océan to become a public interest group, funded by our current shareholders and the French Space Agency at that time (CNES). After the second essential step in 2005 (the first global model with a full coverage of the oceans and a resolution of ¼°, i.e.around 28 km at the equator), the deal changed and Mercator Océan started its European endeavor at the same moment when the European Union and its GMES programme (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security/ former Copernicus appellation), with the European Space Agency undertook to provide Europe with the capability for operational monitoring of the environment. This was ten years ago and another story was starting…

When I cast my mind back, I see that the greatest challenge was probably to balance at every step an uncompromising demand for scientific quality – which means patience and carefulness, and a strong determination for developing and delivering operational services, free quickly the data, secure the production, engage the users. I’m happy today to observe that “operational oceanography” in Europe has clearly found this balance and is known for this at the international level.

Can you describe briefly the main services which Mercator Ocean provides?

Mercator Ocean today proposes two levels of services:

  • A highly qualified and customized oceanographic service, adapted to any user needing to receive regular or one-off ocean information in specific area at the right time, delivering tailor-made products, maps, or expertise.
  • A scientifically qualified service “on the shelf”, i.e. an open and free access to the Copernicus Marine Service via a single point of entry, a dedicated portal that gives access to a catalogue of a more than a hundred oceanography products (Observations and Models) that are regularly updated and which cover the global ocean and six regional seas.

The first one was established with the creation of Mercator Ocean and, with its tailored approach, forms the foundations of our service driven by user needs.

The second one, driven by our EU Copernicus mission, is operational since May 2015, taking over from a long and successful demonstration phase since 2009 with the European “MyOcean” research projects (April 2009- March 2015), coordinated by Mercator Ocean. It was accessible in a pre-operational mode via the MyOcean portal having succeeded to gain almost 5000 subscribers worldwide, about 20% of which from the private sector.

The Copernicus Marine Service offers the guarantee of providing the latest scientific knowledge through a permanent dialogue with a community of specialists in operational oceanography, whether they be producers of data or experts.

Who do you consider are the main customers for these services?

Our service is voluntarily designed to be a “core” service, ie a service delivering generic information targeting a wide range of downstream applications. We take care of the complex transformation required to build a simple and consistent depiction of the ocean from the combination of multiple sources of information that are space, in situ observations and models, we assess the quality of this information, we simplify the access, and we stop here in the value chain: we leave to our users the value created by the customization of this generic information to meet the specific needs of their users.

Their application areas cover a wide scope of domains, from marine environment to living ressources, climate issues and short-term operational matters.

The first users of the Mercator Ocean “native” services are their 5 French funders and stakeholders, that are themselves involved in many different fields. Researchers, operators of public or commercial services, industrialists, academics, analysts and regatta competitors around the world also access personalised Mercator Ocean services. They are a few thousands living in about 100 different countries on the globe.

Setting up the Copernicus Marine Service for EU has confirmed and fostered this tendency with a strong uptake of users in all application areas of this ‘core’ information as soon as it is of quality and simple to access. But the major target of this service are these companies operating downstream services, making added-value services based on our core marine service, to the benefits of end-users. A few MyOcean users are belonging to the EARSC association for instance.

Open data is a very strong theme in European policy making at the moment, does Mercator adhere to this policy? Are all the products which you offer “free and open”?

You are right, the European Commission supports and encourages open data for a few reasons, two of which being directly linked to our domain:
1. public data has significant potential for re-use in new products and services and
2. more data openly available will contribute to discover new and innovative solutions addressing societal challenges. This is also the vision of the EC DG Growth that drives the Copernicus Services and the European Delegated Act on Copernicus data and information policy entered into force in 2013 end. This Act provides free, full and open access to users of environmental data from the Copernicus programme, including data from the Sentinel satellites. This is the case for the Copernicus Marine Service which data will be also available “as is” from other portals. The only condition will be the duly mention of the EU Marine Service origin. The effect of making it easy to access the data and lowering the entry barriers for new businesses and entrepreneurs will automatically develop new products and services and lead to a source of economic development.

We made a very clear choice in this matter when we designed and kicked-off the MyOcean pilot service for the Copernicus Marine. We broke on purpose some existing habits, and we imposed without exception, an “open and free” data policy for every data on our catalogue. We were a bit ahead of time and the strong service uptake has proven us to be correct.

This business model is in line with the Mercator Ocean general-interest and non-profit model. We decided since the very first days to deliver a free service for science-related end-uses, considered as yet funded by our public stakeholders. We can invoice commercial-related end-uses, even if the amounts are quite limited, in particular when a specific work is required.

Do you have connections with companies which are innovating new products and services based on the products which you offer?

All users are handled equally but we are always keen, through the service desk, the collaborative forum or the user workshops, to be in close contact with companies creating new products and services powered by the Copernicus Marine Service. These “intermediate” users are a precious source of information: their requirements contribute to upgrade our service.

COPERNICUS MARINE SERVICE

Can you describe what becoming an “Entrusted Entity for the Copernicus Marine Services means for Mercator Ocean?

In November 2014, Mercator Ocean has been entrusted by the EU to implement the “Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service”, ie the marine service component of its EU Copernicus capacity.

Practically, it means that EU delegates to Mercator Ocean the role and responsibility of implementing the EU budget for delivering the service on its current multi-annual financial framework 2014-2020. We manage on behalf of EU and report to the Commission. We organize the design, development and operations of the service with our own skills and the support of contractors duly selected through open competition, we engage users in the design, we report to EU Members States, we manage the corresponding expenditure. We went through thorough audits in 2014 that proved our capacity.

The level of trust and confidence of the European Commission for a small body like Mercator Océan to manage such an important component is noteworthy. We are very proud of it, as it rewards our scientific developments so as our role as MyOcean project coordinator for 6 years. It is therefore our duty to ensure that we meet all statutory requirements of the EC and to commit to the highest standards of corporate responsibility. We know also that this confidence is a recognition of our way of working, made of cooperation, partnerships and engagement of skilled communities.

MyOcean has been the FP funded preparatory programme leading to development of the Marine Services can you describe how are you preparing for the transition from MyOcean to Copernicus Marine Services? How will the “system” change?

Mercator Ocean has no ambition to fulfill all Copernicus Production and Service Elements. This can only be achieved through partnerships. The elements that Mercator Ocean will not to undertake on its own in the frame of the EU Copernicus Marine Service will be therefore undertaken through comprehensive, open and transparent networking, by entrusting the development of services to expert partners from all backgrounds: the private sector, research institutions or public service operators. Concretely, we are and we shall issue a range of calls for tender to create the necessary strong network of partners.

Do relationships already exist between Mercator Ocean and other Entrusted Entities? For example, are there plans to coordinate activities between organisations in terms of the technical provision of services (for example EMSA with respect to oil spills, EEA for coastal etc), the procurement activities and the evolution of the services?

The Copernicus Marine Service has been designed to serve many purposes including major EU policies such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, combating pollution, protection of marine species, maritime safety and routing, sustainable exploitation of ocean resources, marine energy resources, climate monitoring and hurricane forecasting. As a consequence, agencies like EEA or EMSA were first and foremost key-users of MyOcean. Our data and specific developments have been contributing to their activities and missions (Eye on Earth, MSFD, CleanSeaNet…) for a few years and this will continue.

The Land Monitoring Service (entrusted to EEA) and the Security Services/ maritime surveillance (entrusted to EMSA) are complementary to the Marine Service (entrusted to Mercator Ocean). Worth being noticed that the InSitu data coordination, entrusted to EEA, will lead to other contacts with the Environmental Agency given Observations at Sea is a key upstream data supply, exactly as for ESA with Satellite data.

It is evident as well that there is an inherent link between the Marine, the Atmosphere and the Climate Change components, these two latter components being led by ECMWF, and we have a dialogue open with ECMWF to adjust our plans and cooperation.

We shall develop further these partnerships, taking advantage of this new contractual framework, with entrusted entities duly identified and a 6-year period before us.

What plans are there for controlling the provision of reliable, timely and up to date information related Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring services? And the quality of the products?

Reliability, Timeliness, Up-to-date data, Quality assessment have been pillars of the Copernicus Marine Service development during the MyOcean project phases. All Copernicus Data producers chosen through an open call process have been asked to prove and demonstrate their capabilities in terms of Quality/Validation. Excellence in this domain is not an option for Mercator Océan. This won’t be an option too for our subcontractors.

As I explained at the beginning, we designed “operational oceanography” in Europe with a strong scientific DNA, which means a close link with the research community. They are our first providers and users, indeed very demanding on the quality of products.

Mercator Ocean has led with his European partners the definition of standard metrics to assess the quality of metrics and pushed for their adoption as international standards, now applied in the US, Australia, China, Japan, Canada, …

How do you see the evolution of the Copernicus Marine services and how can all stakeholder views be taken into account as the services change?

The keyword here is again “Partnership”. Mercator Ocean has always worked in partnership, pooling resources and developing cooperative projects. This strategy is one of its major strengths enabling our small team to rise boldly to challenges well beyond the reach of a single company working on its own.

The Copernicus Marine Service encompasses two major Framework Service Elements which will power the Copernicus Marine Service developments: User Uptake (addressing downstream services) and Service Evolution (addressing the scientific progress of the Service). Building these blocks will go ahead first through Workshops and consultations, starting in fall 2015.

INDUSTRY & PROCUREMENT

How do you plan to cooperate with private sector service providers for the implementation of the marine services?

Mercator Ocean undertakes to successfully implement and develop a user-driven core service expected to contribute to European innovation and competitiveness and help build the Blue Economy. So far, the private sector represents about 20% of the Marine Service users. To improve this rate is a strategic priority for Mercator Océan echoing with the EC DG Growth General objectives. The recent EARSC study in 2012 shows that the Copernicus Marine Service is not widely spread in your community, in comparison with the Copernicus Land Service for instance. We consider this as a huge opportunity for improvement

As during the MyOcean project phase, we shall organize regular Regional User and Training Workshops each year. They will be subcontracted through tender process and be open to all communities able to federate users and prospective users in a region.

The User Uptake framework service element will be crucial to link the CMS and private companies given the calls will enable the development of downstream applications or of technical demonstrators in Maritime safety, Marine resources or Coastal environment. A dedicated InfoDay will be organised in May and June 2015 to present the User Uptake and the Service Evolution framework.

How can industry be prepared to participate to tenders issued by Mercator? For example will you be able to provide briefings on procurement plans and timescales well in advance of tender actions?

For the sake of transparency, openness and accessibility, we have created digital tools enabling communities to freely join and contact us and to learn about our progress:

  • A monthly Webcast InfoDays sessions
  • A Copernicus Marine Service Partnership Meeting Place group on Linkedin allowing call for tenders potential candidates to meet, discuss, and eventually form partnerships.

In a general way, Mercator Océan respects open and free competition and cannot give preferential treatment to any user. However, we intend to develop contacts with many User communities serving the Marine and Maritime Sectors such as EARSC, whose members are known to develop EO innovative solutions, in order to raise their awareness of the CMS. This interview is precisely meant to promote the CMS plans among your members and I thank you for this.

Industry has expressed concerns through EARSC position papers that cost will become the primary or only criteria used to evaluate competing bids. How will the Mercator procurement process balance the cost with quality and sustainability of service? Will you also be able to prioritise the composition of the team making the offer?

Our contract awards process is the object of particular scrutiny from our side. Costs cannot be the sole criteria to evaluate competing bids by far. Management ability, compliance with quality standards, innovative skills, competence and resource matching, extensive experience, result-oriented culture will play their part in the scope. Moreover, independent third-party experts are implied in our contract award process.

FUTURE

How do you see Mercator Océan changing over the next few years?

We have just passed a major milestone, haven’t we? It is maybe too early to look yet into the next future. However, we know yet that the delegation agreement to Mercator Océan has been conditioned by the European Commission, to the enlargement and the europeanisation of our board of shareholders. As Director General, my priority is given to the success of the CMEMS implementation by Mercator Océan while ensuring a balanced development of the company resources.

At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts and how your activities could contribute to the future development of the EO geo-information service sector?

My thought can be summarized by a simple wish: that many EARSC members will open and gain new markets (UE and Export) thanks to innovative developments based on the Copernicus Marine Service.