Il Fondo Al Mar: Data Visualisation and Suspicious Sinkings


In fondo al mar (Under the sea) is a data mapping/information visualisation project depicting toxic waste dumping in the Mediterranean Sea. Since its conception in 2009, the project has received attention from Italian and Euro-Mediterranean media, as well as the international scientific and academic press. Italian authorities also took notice, particularly the environmental police and the Ministry of the Interior, but, according to the site’s creators, have yet to act on the information.

In late 2009, journalist Paolo Gerbaudo was working on an investigative piece when he noticed clear patterns in sinking incidents involving ships suspected of carrying hazardous waste, including radioactive material. Not satisfied with just writing about these ‘accidents’, Gerbaudo contacted MIT researcher David Boardman, an expert in data mapping, and, working together from different continents, got the project off the ground a month and a half later.

“We decided to use information visualisation because the linear format of both written journalism and video journalism were, in our opinion, not effective in conveying the scale of the phenomenon.”

Il fondo al mar - map

Over the last 30 years dozens of commercial vessels have sunk in mysterious circumstances across the Mediterranean, from Spain to Syria, and particularly around Southern Italy. Many suspect the involvement of organised crime syndicates, shady entrepreneurs and even governments in the incidents, generating huge profits in the process. To map these incidents Gerbaudo and Boardman mined the archives of the Lloyds Register of Shipping in London and collected information from press clippings, specialist websites and reports compiled by environmental organisations.

“Looking at that archive, and speaking with people working at the register it seemed very clear that there was something deeply wrong in the frequency with which ships sank around the coasts of Italy in the 80s and 90s.”

The Rosso, an Italian container ship that ran suspiciously aground in 1990. Image courtesy of Legambiente.

Once launched, Il fondo al mar became a participatory project with a strong emphasis on crowdsourcing. Gerbado and Boardman say they have received “tens of emails informing us about other incidents or giving us more information about the ones we had already included in the map,” even corrections to errors in the data. This highlights not only the public interest in the project, but also the level of expert attention it receives. Il fondo al mar also garnered interested among environmental and humanities groups, appearing at international conferences such as MIT’s Digital + Humanities Conference, Ars Electronica and the International Journalism Festival.