Backyard Buoys awarded $4.98M Cooperative Agreement with National Science Foundation to improve ocean data access for Indigenous Communities

Sofar Ocean

Backyard Buoys, a community-led ocean observing project that empowers Indigenous partners to collect and utilize ocean data using Sofar Ocean’s Spotter buoys and Smart Moorings, has been awarded a $4.98 million cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Convergence Accelerator program, which will advance the effort into its second phase. The project, which was launched in September 2021, is one of six Track E: Networked Blue Economy projects chosen to advance to Phase II, and is a collaboration between Sofar and the following organizations:

  • Alaska: Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS), Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Alaska Department of Natural Resources (ADNR), and Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP).
  • Pacific Northwest: Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), Quileute Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, Western Washington University (WWU).
  • Pacific Islands: Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System (PacIOOS), Marshall Islands Conservation Society (MICS), National Park of American Samoa (NPAS), Hawai'i Sea Grant, Conservation International Hawai'i.

Phase II of the Backyard Buoys program will build on the extensive project planning, relationship-building, and Indigenous knowledge sharing that defined Phase I. Its foci will be:

  • The collaborative development of Community Research and Implementation Plans (CRISPs) by all project partners.
  • The deployment and stewardship of Sofar’s marine sensing devices by Indigenous communities using region-specific CRISPs.
  • The launch of buoy data access tools co-designed with Indigenous communities for use in local contexts (such as low data bandwidth).

“This award will allow us to continue our efforts in co-designing technologies and techniques with Indigenous community members in ways that complement their knowledge,” said Principal Investigator Jan Newton, NANOOS. “The wave buoy systems will collect critical real time wave information that can serve to increase awareness and understanding of changes in the ocean and climate.”

Map showing the coverage area of PacIOOS, AOOS, and NANOOS, the three regional associations of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) that are involved in the Backyard Buoys project (orange). The coverage area of other regional associations of the IOOS is also shown (blue).

Indigenous Communities at the Forefront

Backyard Buoys consciously adopts an ocean research model that, unfortunately, is atypical. Instead of telling a community how devices will be deployed and data will be collected and used, Backyard Buoys puts Indigenous partners at the forefront, empowering them to take responsibility for all stages of the ocean data collection process. This establishes a critical precedent and ensures that the Indigenous communities on the front lines of climate change can effectively use the buoy data that they gather to bolster maritime activities, food security, and coastal hazard protection.

“This project has the ability to bridge local Indigenous knowledge and scientific data collection making the information needed for ocean safety decisions more accessible and relevant to our local community,” said Fuiava Bert Fuiava, Samoan Village Chief, American Samoa.

“Nearshore wave data will help prepare for and mitigate impacts from a changing environment that threatens the livelihood and homes of Quinault tribal members,” said Joe Schumacker, Quinault Indian Nation.

Throughout the project and guided by the CARE data principles, team members from the regional ocean observing systems discuss data collection, archiving, and sharing with the Indigenous partners. Each community may have unique concerns and desires about how their data is used. To respect Indigenous data sovereignty, the Backyard Buoys team will work with each community to create data agreements that explicitly define data sharing limits and protocols.

“What appealed to us about the project at the AEWC [Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission] is that it has a collaborative approach, and it is community-led and community-driven,” said Lesley Hopson, Executive Director of AEWC. “Our whaling communities are located along the arctic coast of Alaska and rely on the resources from the sea to feed our communities. The sea can be very unforgiving and dangerous, and it changes all the time. This technology will allow us to improve safety for our hunters and better understand environmental changes.”

A Sofar Spotter buoy at the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Project partners recently travelled to Utqiagvik to participate in a co-production workshop with Indigenous community members, local hunters, AOOS, government officials, and academics.

Should they choose to, Backyard Buoys’ Indigenous partners have the opportunity to further democratize the ocean data they collect by sharing it with the scientific community. Researchers focused on the impacts of climate change, in particular, will find the information gathered in these traditionally data-sparse ocean regions extremely valuable. The climate assessments that they produce will serve the very Indigenous communities that provided them with the data and will help these communities seek funding and resources to support climate adaptation projects in the future.

“Indigenous communities involved will be the ultimate stewards of the wave buoys within their own waters throughout the project and beyond,” said the Backyard Buoys team. “They will identify where the buoys should be deployed, when, why, and how they should be operated in a way that meets their needs and goals.”

Backyard Buoys data also has applications in the classroom. Project partner NANOOS, for example, has partnered with Western Washington University (WWU) to develop modules for undergraduates that will utilize the buoy data. In turn, WWU will partner with the Quinault Indian Nation to adapt the modules for high school students, helping empower the next generation of Indigenous ocean advocates.

“The longer-term goal is for these observing assets to remain operational within each of the communities beyond the scope of the Phase II project effort, and to expand the realized observing capacity to other Indigenous communities in other regions across the U.S.,” said the Backyard Buoys team. “The Phase I co-production collaborators have been highly engaged and are very motivated and excited to participate in the Phase II implementation of the Backyard Buoys project they co-developed.”

A Sofar Spotter buoy. Spotters collect and transmit wave, wind, sea surface temperature, and barometric pressure data in real-time.

Proven Marine Sensing Technology

At the technological center of the Backyard Buoys project is the Sofar Ocean Spotter, a metocean buoy that collects and transmits wave, wind, sea surface temperature, and barometric pressure data in real-time. Basketball-sized, solar-powered, and ultra durable, Spotters are simple to deploy and designed for harsh ocean conditions; to date, thousands have been deployed in all global oceans.

Phase II of Backyard Buoys will see nearly 60 Spotters and Smart Moorings — Spotter’s subsurface extension — deployed across each of the project’s focus regions. The chance to partner directly with many Indigenous communities and, for the first time, to deploy at scale with a federally-funded organization (IOOS), is an invaluable opportunity for the Sofar team.

“With accessible data tools, these data will serve community needs for decisions on scales from daily (e.g. related to assessing safety for maritime operations and coastal hazards) to longer planning horizons (e.g. related to assessing resilience for climate change and ecosystem function),” said the Backyard Buoys team.

By piloting the program in three environmentally and culturally diverse regions, Backyard Buoys creates a comprehensive playbook that can be used to launch parallel programs in other locations globally. Collectively, these efforts help build a foundation for underserved communities to more easily access the ocean data that they need.

Stay tuned for more Backyard Buoys updates as Phase II commences and the first units are deployed by Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Pacific Islands. To read our Backyard Buoys Phase I announcement, check out our previous blog post.


Backyard Buoys is powered by a plethora of individuals and organizations. Special thanks to project leads Jan Newton (NANOOS), Sheyna Wisdom (AOOS), Melissa Iwamoto (PacIOOS), Sebastien Boulay, and Tim Janssen (Sofar Ocean). Additional thanks to Carol Janzen (AOOS), Roxanne Carini (NANOOS), and Duncan Mactavish (Sofar Ocean).

This project is made possible with contributions from University of Washington, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Weston Solutions, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Axiom Data Science, Ajeltake Community Development Association, RMI Historic Preservation Office, Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, Micronesia Conservation Trust, Conservation Society of Pohnpei, Conservation International Hawai'i, University of Hawai'i Sea Grant, and Western Washington University.

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