Coding for Fish

The coders had been at it for 36 hours when I arrived at the Fishackathon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium early on a Sunday morning in June. The room set aside for their work was eerily silent, littered with empty Red Bull cans and half-eaten pizza. A few bleary-eyed programmers sat staring at their laptop screens, but most of the hackers were passed out under fish tanks and kelp forests in the aquarium’s exhibition halls.

The weekend event was one of five held at ocean institutions around the United States. in the lead-up to the U.S. Department of State’s Our Ocean Conference 2014, held in Washington, D.C. The first-of-its-kind Fishackathon partnered fisheries experts with hackers to create tech solutions to help us stop overfishing. Participants competed for prizes that included $5000 in cash and a trip to the Philippines.

What’s the problem with overfishing? It’s simple. On a planetary level, we’re taking more fish out of the sea than the ocean system can replace, and oftentimes we’re doing it with gear that leaves a stripped and barren landscape behind along the sea bottom. The end game—coming very, very soon—is billions of fish-dependent people in search of protein and lost jobs. The ocean itself won’t be very happy either. Fish are a key part of the ocean ecosystem, and losing them will contribute directly to global ocean collapse.

One of the challenges we face is that we don’t really know exactly what’s going on out there. Who’s fishing? Where? What gear are they using? What are they catching? Who’s fishing illegally? The ocean is vast, humans are tiny, and most governments have little capacity to track fisheries data and identify and chase the bad guys. And there are a lot of bad guys. Fishing is big business, generating more than $80 billion annually in the U.S alone, and many players want a piece of this lucrative pie. Without data, we’re powerless to make good decisions and manage our fisheries sustainably into the future.

That’s where the Fishackathon came in. To guide the hackers’ work, the State Department spelled out specific problem statements for them to address. The problems focused on collecting data where fish are caught and brought to shore in the Philippines and West Africa, reporting illegal fishing, and enabling ocean managers to use the data to make smart decisions.

In Monterey, nine teams presented mobile app and web-based prototype solutions to a panel of judges. Two of the most intriguing projects were Ship Watch and Fish DB. Ship Watch is a photo-based app to report illegal fishing. Locals use basic cell phones with photo capacity to shoot a picture of an illegal vessel—complete with geolocation information—and upload it to Instagram. Government managers have their own app to view and use the photo reports to create heat maps that predict the vessel’s next stop.

Fish DB enables fishers to register their boats, request fishing licenses and report illegal activity. Fishers use either a mobile app on smart phone or SMS on a basic cell phone to send and receive information. The data they report shows up in a simple, one-stop, web-based platform where government managers can quickly issue registration numbers and licenses and analyze illegal activity reports.

The Aquarium had never held a coding event before, and staffers there weren’t sure how it would turn out. The presentations surprised them. “I’ve been at this for more than 15 years, and when I see this marrying of fisheries knowledge with technology tools, I’m optimistic,” said Jennifer Kemmerly, director of Seafood Watch at the Aquarium. “We can make a real difference with this.”

Participants liked it, too. “Most hackathons focus on business problems,” said Isha Dandavate, a member of the team from the University of California-Berkeley that created Fish DB. “This focused on social impact, and it was great to have the sleepover and be able to make a contribution in the course of a single weekend.”

“This was a completely new kind of problem for us,” said here teammate Jenton Lee. “Not knowing anything about this topic at all and just diving in, it made it really exciting.”

Two days later, the State Department held a Google hangout for the finalists from each of the five sites around the country to present their projects to a national panel of judges. When I logged on, I saw Isha of Fish DB in one of the tiny video squares below the talking head of the competition moderator. The five finalists pitched and demoed their prototypes, and the judges asked questions.

Six hours later, my Twitter feed lit up with the news. Fish DB had won.

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You can see more tweets related to the events at #fishackathon, #CodeForFish and #OurOcean2014.

What would the Fish DB team do differently next time? “We’d do more UX, more on-the-ground research, with the fishers and government people who are the daily users of the app and the web platform,” said teammate Dan Tsai.

All participants who created prototypes agreed to develop them under a Creative Commons license, so others can borrow and build on the work these coders have begun. Whoever moves the work forward, the next step is to find a group of early adopters on the ground and work with them so that these apps and platforms respond to their needs, in their languages, on there turf.

It’s going to take efforts like this, and many more such out-of-the box approaches, to change the fate of our fisheries and our ocean.