A Hackathon for Fish Conservation

Getting ready for Fishackathon 2014. Photo by Matt Merrifield.

Getting ready for Fishackathon 2014. Photo by Matt Merrifield.

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Hackathons have swept through the tech industry, and have been used to quickly find innovative solutions in software, gaming and apps.

Could a hackathon ever be used to solve a conservation challenge?

To use one example: could coders, designers and project managers – many of whom with no conservation experience – develop solutions to address fisheries management?

That’s not a hypothetical situation. It is the premise behind the Fishackathon, a recently held hackathon event hosted by the U.S. Department of State, in which participants spent a weekend trying to develop solutions for fisheries management.

It was held in conjunction with the Our Oceans Conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry.

“These events are a lot of fun and have solved a lot of technological problems, but they have not really addressed social issues, let alone nature conservation,” says Matt Merrifield, director of GeoDesign for The Nature Conservancy in California, and a participant in the Fishackathon.

Hackathons are events where computer programmers and others gather to intensively develop solutions to a problem. It is, essentially a “hack marathon” (and as participants are quick to point out, “hack” in this case means “playful, exploratory programming”).

These events have become a form of sport for programmers – they get together and code up solutions in a set venue, and challenge each other to innovate. They’re characterized by sleep deprivation and lots and lots of caffeine.

The Fishackathon addressed one of the most vexing problems in conservation: how to track illegal fishing through the supply chain and make fishing more sustainable. It poses special challenges because there are limited data for many of the world’s fisheries.

Merrifield participated in the Silicon Valley Fishackathon, held at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He knew well how fisheries problems were often addressed by professional conservationists: they studied the problem, they published a paper, they developed a plan around it.

That approach takes, at minimum, three years.

Entering the aquarium, he realized he had less than three days. Thirty-six hours, to be exact.

Thirty-six hours to solve a problem that routinely stumps professional marine planners.

And most of his fellow participants had never dealt with fisheries management. What could they realistically accomplish?

He was assigned to a team and provided a real fisheries challenge. In his case, it was addressing illegal fishing in Ghana.

Immediately, it became apparent that this was not your typical conservation meeting. “The group was very, very young and diverse,” he says. “Conservationists talk all the time about engaging new audiences. This was new audience. And they were savvy, driven and hungry for solutions.”

The groups began on Friday evening. Merrifield’s team immediately set to work on how to track and monitor illegal fishing based on a problem statement developed by Ghana fisheries managers. Around the aquarium, other groups tackled similar problems.

“We worked until 1 or 2 in the morning,” says Merrifield. “I probably got 5 hours of sleep the entire weekend. We had food, we had lots of Red Bull. We could wander around the aquarium. The World Cup was on in the background. It was an energizing atmosphere.”

The teams competed on who could develop the best solution. “I was the only conservationist from an NGO in the room,” says Merrifield. “But I run a map and design shop for the Conservancy. I love to just get in there and do some coding, so it was a lot fun.”

But just as importantly, did the team develop solutions?

Merrifield’s team developed ShipWatch, a way for citizens to report illegal fishing using Instagram. They tag pictures with a specific hashtag, allowing officials to track trawlers using illegal practices.

The idea earned his team runner-up honors for the region, and team members will discuss the idea with Ghanian officials to determine if it can be implemented in the near future.

“Overall, there were some mind-blowing solutions presented after 36 hours, developed by people who knew nothing about the issue at the beginning,” says Merrifield. “There were several viable options that could make a difference in fisheries management.”

As Merrifield notes, everyone knows the tech industry works fast and rewards innovation. But so often, fields like conservation have struggled with how to engage tech’s brightest stars. A hackathon is thus more than a fun weekend: it’s a way to bring fresh, new ideas to the field. And quickly.

“The Fishackathon harnessed skills and different viewpoints that we need in conservation,” says Merrifield. “The tech industry makes huge gains when it uses hackathons to address problems in gaming, for instance. This did the same for conservation, and it’s getting new people involved in our field in a fun, energizing way.”

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy. 

Posted In: Tech

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.

Comments: A Hackathon for Fish Conservation

  •  Comment from Julia

    What a cool event! I hope there are more conservation focused hackathon events in the future. Is there a way for people to see the other ideas developed during the fishackathon?

  •  Comment from Matt Miller

    You can follow the Fishackathon on Twitter @Fishackathon and via the hashtag #CodeforFish.

  •  Comment from Matt Jones

    A related hackathon is coming up in a few weeks — the Open Science Codefest in Santa Barbara, CA from Sep 2-4, 2014. There are a lot of environmental and ecological science hacking sessions, on everything from biodiversity science to snow and ice hydrology. Check it out: http://nceas.github.io/open-science-codefest

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