Hacking For Good at the Fishackathon

Jun 19, 2014


Isha Dandavate and Dan Tsai work on their winning mobile app at the Fishackathon at the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Credit Doug McKnight

Hacking has a bad reputation – think the recent breaches of credit card systems at Target and Neiman Marcus. But there is a movement underway where computer coders are hacking for the public good.   And it happened this past weekend at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Isha Dandavate and her three friends from UC Berkeley huddle in a conference room at the Monterey Bay Aquarium -- sitting just few yards from exhibits celebrating marine life. 

Isha says, “Being surrounded by the animals, the fish; it really brings empathy to the project. It reminds us what it is that we are working towards.”

The team is strategizing about how to create a mobile app to track fish from where it’s caught in a third world country to where the consumer buys it. 

They’re among 40 computer programmers participating in a weekend Fishackathon – where teams are work around the clock to solve that problem.  Jennifer Kimmerly is the Seafood Watch Director at the Aquarium.

She says, “We have so many companies and consumers interested in doing the right thing and vote with their dollars; support those fisheries that are trying to do better to be more environmentally responsible. If you don’t know where the seafood is coming from, you’re kind of stopped.”

Kimmerly says 50 percent of America’s seafood comes from developing countries and can go through a maze of unknown distribution channels before it gets to your plate.

“How it is caught, where it come from, even the basic names of some of the seafood items that are caught really don’t flow throughout the supply chain,” says Kimmerly.  “So ultimately we hope that we are going to have some really great templates or ideas for some technological innovation around how to collect data.”

Finding a high tech solution to a social problem is what hackathons are all about.  Delyn Simon is with a company called Hacker League, which helps run these types of events.

She says they began almost 10 years ago; about the time computer programmers decided “hacker” shouldn’t be a dirty word.

Simon says, “A lot of hackers said you know hacking just means tinkering and prototyping and building something that you have been meaning to build but just haven’t had time to do so. I like how developers kind of banded together and decided you know we’re are going to take back that term ourselves.”

Simon says Hacker League has helped with more than 300 hackathons solving problems that range from public access to government records to developing new ways to distribute music.

In this hackathon, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of five participating locations around the country. The contest is sponsored by U.S. State Department, which has made ocean issues a top priority. 

 Thomas Debass is Deputy Special Representative for Global Partnerships at the State Department. He says the development of an app at the Fishackathon goes hand in hand with the department’s effort to get smart phones to fishermen in developing countries. “So they could utilize cutting edge technologies not only to make them better fishermen, but make sure they take care of the broader ocean,” says Debass

Back in a boardroom at the Aquarium, Isha and her team from Berkeley present their completed project. It has been a 36 hour, sleep deprived, Red Bull infused journey. But they have successfully built a mobile app that collects data on fish that are caught off the coast of West Africa.

Team member Dan Tsai says this first experience at a Hackathon was a positive one.

“I do think it is a way to get a diverse group of people together, who might not think about these sorts of issues on a day to day basis to try to brainstorm potentially novel, innovative ideas,” says Tsai

The national winning app, announced in Washington, turned out to be the one developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium by the team from Berkeley. 

You can watch the Berkeley Team's presentation of their winning app at the Fishackathon website. Go into the video in box mid-page and in 26 minutes.