Mobilising for sustainability: Hackers set their sights on sustainability

Coders work on their laptops as tuna and other fish swim in a tank in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The marathon coding session was part of the Fishackathon, an event organised by the U.S. Department of State. Photo: © Monterey Bay Aquarium
Aug 2016
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Hackathons, events pioneered by the tech industry, are becoming increasingly popular in global sustainability, generating applications that track the movement of lost fishing traps and other innovations. But can they create lasting change in the world?

This story is the third entry in a Future Earth blog series series called “Mobilising for sustainability.” We're highlighting people, programmes and technologies from around the world that seek to build new ways of bringing non-traditional groups, including young people, hackers and more, into sustainability research – and in generating new solutions for the challenges of today. We encourage you to share your own examples of efforts to create momentum toward global sustainability in the comments section below and on Facebook and Twitter.

Read other stories in this series about summer programmes, a 30-day challenge and online education.

Every year roughly 640,000 metric tonnes of fishing gear – nets, lines and traps – is lost or abandoned in the ocean where it mutilates and kills thousands of whales, seals, turtles and birds. It’s called “ghost gear,” and it’s a big problem.

But what if fishers could pinpoint exactly where they lost their gear on a digital map? And what if you could track where that gear ends up using real-time data of ocean currents and weather patterns so that it’s easier to recover?

This April, a team of coders built a mobile app over period of 48 hours that did just that.

The app is called Phishing for Good, and it was developed by a group from Hong Kong as part of a programme organised by the U.S. Department of State called Fishackathon. Now in its third year, Fishackathon saw thousands of volunteer coders and technologists work with fisheries experts to create usable solutions to sustainable fisheries challenges such as ghost gear, aquatic invasive species, declining fish stocks and seafood fraud and mislabeling.

It’s a good example of how tools from the tech sector can be used to rapidly advance sustainability solutions.

“This is not your typical hackathon. It is unique. Fishing is not a subject matter that has really been looked into this way before, and there are quite advanced products that can come out of the hackathon that we’re really excited about,” says Thomas Debass, Deputy Special Representative for the Secretary's Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State. 

While many people associate the term “hacking” with computer crime, the purpose of a hackathon is to rapidly advance new ideas, often in response to an identified theme or problem. Hackathons have come a long way since their start in 1999 when 10 programmers met in Canada to make improvements to a little known operating system. They’re no longer solely the domain of people fluent in programming languages; they often have science and data at the core; and they’re beginning to tackle some of the biggest social, environmental and political challenges facing humanity. That includes global hunger, refugees and urban resilience.

Hackathons that revolve around sustainability are a particularly good way to bring together new communities, says Owen Gaffney, director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University and a communications consultant for Future Earth.

“Sustainability challenges are, by their nature, multifaceted, so we need scientists, young people, innovators and designers to work together to explore new ideas. Often we see concepts emerge that they would never have contemplated on their own,” Gaffney says.

But while such events may have a reputation for being the province of millennials, the hackathon community is much broader than that, Debass says.

“You also see the old engineers, who are already in technology companies, who come with a passion and curiosity, and that should be encouraged and nurtured,” he says.

The rising popularity of hackathons (one writer suggested that  "wherever there is a tough question to answer or problem to solve, there is sure to be a hackathon") means they have also attracted their share of criticism. In 2012, notable tech blogger David Sasaki cautioned against the worship of apps and hackathons as the solutions to all the world’s problems. He links them to the rise of “solutionism,” where the elegance of the solution is of more value than a full understanding of the problem. Millions of ideas never make it beyond prototype phase for various reasons – there’s no support to continue development of the idea, or the people who the solution has been built for have not been involved.

That’s why the Fishackathon has focused on involving all members of the fishing industry, explains Kateule Nakazwe from BongoHive, Zambia’s first technology and innovation hub and host of the 2016 Fishackathon in Zambia.

“We’ve got so much insight from researchers who understand what’s happening in Zambia’s fishing industry. They’ve helped us develop robust problem statements that encourage people to really understand the needs of fishermen, the needs of the national fishing industry and what science knows and does not know,” she says.

“It’s important to make the time to engage these communities because, at the end of the day, it only makes sense if people are making use of the digital platforms that are created. If they are not making use of them, then the whole event was for nothing.”

Jeannie Lee, a computer science professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology also thinks it’s important for more researchers to be involved in hackathons. She participated in Singapore’s Fishackathon and saw it as a great learning opportunity across disciplines.

“I would like to think that this hackathon helped provide a potential path to a feasible technology solution to the research problems posed by others, who might not have the means or knowledge to solve them," Lee says.

As hackathons have evolved to tackle different kinds of challenges, so too has their design. For example, The School of Data – a group that builds data literacy – runs guided online and offline data expeditions, which are essentially guided hackathons that enable people to work together, sometimes over weeks or months, to build a deeper understanding of how to find stories and solutions in data.

The Future Earth Media Lab, an initiative of Future Earth, the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the non-profit group Globaïa, recently launched the Anthronaut Experience. This hackathon brings together scientists, storytellers and coders who are interested in using virtual reality technology to reconnect people to planet and engage people in ideas about humanity’s future. The Media Lab ran The Anthronaut Experience during the Paris climate conference in December 2015. The event led to, among other things, an immersive experience that takes viewers on a tour of a Brazilian favela.

“Hackathons should not be seen as a panacea for the world’s problems,” Gaffney says. “The greatest challenge that hackathons face is not in finding the right ideas, but creating a favorable environment for ideas to evolve.”

Future Earth Media Lab is co-hosting a virtual reality hackathon in Australia next month to explore the future of cities. You can learn more about that event here.

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