“RDM Support added a unique feature to the OceanParcels code. That’s how we reeled in funding for a new project”

Utrecht University scientists developed the OceanParcels computer program that shows how plastic, bacteria and other particles move around the ocean. To add a new feature, they needed complex algorithms. That is why the team asked for help from RDM Support. The request paid off: thanks to the code, they received funding for new research.

There are many places in our world where plastic is washed ashore. The question is: where is this plastic litter coming from? To find this out, Professor of Oceanography Erik van Sebille and his colleagues built a computer program: OceanParcels

“It is a package of programming codes that can be downloaded by scientists,” says Erik van Sebille. “The package allows them to write computer progams themselves. With the help of OceanParcels you can simulate how plastic particles travel through the ocean. In this way you can find out whose plastic ends up in what spot. But you can also use OceanParcels if you want to do research into plankton, bacteria or other particles in the ocean.”

RDM Support had helped us before. When I told them what we wanted to achieve, they got to work on this problem right away.

OceanParcels is not the only computer program of its kind. But recently, a unique feature has been added to the Utrecht software. “We were already able to let different particles move around the ocean at the same time,” says Erik van Sebille. “But we did not succeed in simulating how these different particles influenced each other. That was a new feature we wanted to add. However, it turned out to be more complicated than we thought. We needed help, and so we came to RDM Support.”

Erik van Sebille
Erik van Sebille (photographer Robert Oosterbroek)

Preventing overfishing

Why did the scientists want to add such a new feature? Initially OceanParcels was built to do research into ocean plastic, says researcher Peter Nooteboom, a colleague of Erik’s. “But we also wanted to research tuna fishing. And for that we needed this new piece of code.”

It is like this: to catch tuna, fishermen use a special kind of floating buoys. “They let them float at sea,” explains Peter Nooteboom. “Tuna come up to these buoys and as a result the fishermen catch more tuna. But scientists also use the fishery numbers to estimate how much tuna there is in the ocean. The presence of the buoys distorts that picture.”

So we do not have a clear view of how many fish are around in other spots, he clarifies. “We risk to overestimate the number of tuna and find this out when there is only a few tuna left. That is why we wanted to make computer simulations showing how the presence of the buoys influences the behaviour of tuna.”

We also wanted to research tuna fishing. And for that we needed this new piece of code.

Complicated algorithms

The researchers asked research engineers Raoul Schram and Roel Brouwer of RDM Support to expand the code of OceanParcels. Erik van Sebille: “They had helped us before. When I told them what we wanted to achieve, they got to work on this problem right away.”

Of course, Erik and Peter write code themselves. But, says the professor, this question was a lot more complicated. “We needed very different algorithms for the new code. And in the end we are oceanographers, no IT specialists.”

In order to take a smart approach to this problem, Erik van Sebille should have been hitting the books again.  “The RDM Support people already have that kind of knowledge at their fingertips. Besides, they know better what kind of algorithms exist, and how to deal with such a project efficiently. That saved us a lot of time.”

Exploring together

It is useful, he says, to get help from people who are practiced in technology, but at the same time understand the workings of the academic world. “When you take on a commercial company to build software, you need to explain your goals very carefully. The good thing about the people from RDM Support is that they contribute their own ideas from their academic knowledge and perspective.’

RDM Support staff are also researchers themselves, emphasises Erik van Sebille, making them understand that you do not know the precise outcome yet during the initial stage. “Together you are building and exploring at the same time.”

Peter Nooteboom, onderzoeker bij de faculteit Bètawetenschappen
Peter Nooteboom (photographer Annemiek van der Kuil, PhotoA)

New funding

While the RDM Support research engineers worked on the new code, Erik van Sebille was talking with the SPC, an international research group on the islands in the Pacific Ocean. “They showed a keen interest in OceanParcels and in particular in the new feature that RDM was building. The question how much fish is in the ocean is very important to them, because the economy of the islands depends on fishing.”

SPC decided to fund the Utrecht research into tuna fishing. The new piece of code was the deciding factor for collaboration, says Erik van Sebille. “Only when the code was finished, did we sign our contract. So the time and energy we invested in the expansion of OceanParcels paid off immediately.”                                                      

Researcher Peter Nooteboom did the research. With the help of the updated OceanParcels software he built a computer simulation in which both the tuna and the buoys occur, and which shows as well how the two influence each other. “In this way we find out how much tuna is really in the ocean. Government bodies use that information to enter into new agreements on sustainable fishing. And that helps to prevent oceans being depleted of fish.”

No black box

Now that the first tuna research is almost done, the team is already looking at a follow-up. Peter Nooteboom: “We would like to research the way in which fishermen organise their work. How do you fish sustainably, so without depleting the ocean of fish? To figure that out, you also need this code.”

The follow-up researches can be done by the oceanographers themselves, without the help of RDM Support. That is how it was always meant to be, says Erik van Sebille. “The collaboration with RDM Support is a real co-creation project. They do all the technological stuff, but it is important that we as customers know about the ins and outs. The code should not be a black box for us.”

Peter Nooteboom: “Meanwhile I have added new additions to the code. That went very smoothly. But if there are any problems or we encounter a bug, we can always call Roel and Raoul.”

More about OceanParcels

The OceanParcels software package is developed by the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research, part of Utrecht University. The software is open source;  this means that anybody is free to use and adjust the code. See also: