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Marine Traffic is based in the University of the Aegean, Greece. It collects and publishes data collected by VHF masts, which are then uploaded to the Marine Traffic central database over the internet.
The site works as all ships with a gross tonnage of 300 tons or more are legally required to have an AIS transponder on board, AIS transponders send out open data which can be easily detected.
The site contains instructions on how to set up a VHF mast and computer to collect and upload it to the central database. It also gives links to purchase smaller AIS transponder for vessels which are not legally required to have one on-board.