Mobilising MERP data

Published: 15 February 2017

By MERP scientist, Dr Remi Vergnon

GitHub repository of Rmerp packagesIn order to understand changes in the UK marine ecosystems, one of MERP’s main aims has been to make better use of existing data. This existing information comes from multiple sources and fetching, combining and analyzing it has required developing dedicated programmatic tools. 

R is a free statistical and programming software, as well as a programming language in its own right. The functioning blocks of R are called packages – documented bundles of ready-made programs that can be installed and called upon from within the R software. Packages are contributed by experts in a very broad range of research fields and their number has increased so much over the years (approximately 10,000 on R’s main repository at time of writing, up 2,000 since April 2016) that it is now possible to tackle virtually any analytical or data manipulation task one can think of. Packages make R a hugely powerful and flexible tool that is very popular among researchers: it is for instance the analytical tool of choice here in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.

Example of merpAppWithin MERP we have developed Rmerp, an R package specifically built to perform the sort of data operations MERP members are likely to run frequently. Although MERP is a diverse group of researchers with a wide spectrum of expertise, having common research goals and a common area of interest means that our computing jobs necessarily overlap. For instance, many of us use similar online resources to inform our analyses on UK seas, and many of us put together datasets combining multiple sources of physical, chemical and biological data to better understand the forces at play in UK marine communities. In that context having a tool that facilitates and speeds up these common operations makes a lot of sense. 

The Rmerp package is currently available on GitHub to MERP members only. It allows fetching marine data on the web as well as mapping and combining them. Recently we have taken steps to create a open front for Rmerp, also hosted on GitHub. This new webpage consists of two separate R packages containing functions to manipulate data (merpData) and query web services (merpWS) respectively, as well as a web application (merpApp) illustrating their capabilities. 

An R package is an ever evolving thing, and going forward we hope that MERP members will not only make use of these resources but also take ownership of them and help us refine existing functions and add new content. Rmerp can survive beyond the lifetime of MERP and we aim to create a tool that is useful in the long-term for both the community of marine researchers and interested members of the public. 

For those familiar with R, the open front can be accessed through and a new-user demonstration will be arranged in due course.

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