When they woke at the base of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 30-foot-high kelp forest Saturday morning — under the watchful gaze of leopard sharks, red octopuses and dozens of other marine species — four students and alums at UC Berkeley’s School of Information knew they faced no ordinary programming challenge.
The team spent the weekend participating in a nationwide Fishackathon, a project supporting sustainable fishing practices around the world. The team’s project first was judged the best at the Monterey Bay Aquarium site, and then faced finalists from four other hackathon sites across the country. After Tuesday’s final presentations, the I School team was awarded the hackathon grand prize.
I School student Dan Tsai and 2014 graduates Isha Dandavate, Jenton Lee and Kate Rushton joined dozens of other programmers, students and information professionals from Silicon Valley and across Northern California at the aquarium the weekend of June 13-14 for two straight days and nights of design and development. The aquarium had teams of oceanographers and fishing researchers available as resources and consultants for the contestants, to provide information they needed to guide their designs.
The U.S. Department of State sponsored hackathons at five sites across the country, asking participants to create innovative solutions for the sustainable management of fisheries and the protection of oceans, in coordination with the department’s “Our Ocean” conference. The teams addressed challenges facing small-scale fisheries, including overfishing, illegal fishing, lack of resources and the degradation of the marine environment.
Three Hackathon novices
Of the four members of the I School team, only Rushton had participated in a hackathon before; the other three were hackathon novices.
Isha Dandavate, Jenton Lee and Kate Rushton all graduated in May from the School of Information’s Master of Information Management and Systems program and are taking a few months off before starting their new jobs — Lee and Rushton at Salesforce, Dandavate at YouTube as a user-experience researcher. Dan Tsai is a user-interface design intern at Salesforce this summer; he’ll return for his second year at the I School in the fall.
“We knew that this is much more than an engineering problem; we also need to think about social aspects, the policy implications and more,” said Dandavate. “After studying at the I School, that kind of thinking has become almost innate in us”
At the aquarium
Spending two days and nights at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was a big part of the hackathon’s appeal. “Going into the weekend, I was just thrilled to be able to sleep over at the aquarium,” said Tsai. “Winning was never on the radar.”
After the sleeping in front of the facility’s famous kelp forest Friday night, the team spent their second night at the 90-foot open sea exhibit — the aquarium’s largest — with tuna, sharks, brilliant jellyfish, colorful puffins and huge sea turtles. “It was even more epic,” according to Lee.
“We had a blast! I can’t even express how cool it was,” said Dandavate.
Managing West African small-scale fishing fleets
The I School team worked on problems faced by the West Africa Regional Fisheries Program (WARFP), which is administered by the World Bank. The program is assisting Cape Verde, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana to register, license and monitor their entire commercial small-scale fishing fleets, comprising at least 30,000 canoes.
Since mobile technology has become widespread throughout West Africa, even in rural areas and fishing communities, WARFP leaders believe that mobile phones could provide a viable platform for boat registration, licensing and monitoring. The I School team set out to design and implement a mobile-based solution that meets the WARFP needs and is also sensitive to the real contexts of West African fishing communities.
“None of us was intimately familiar with the issues in West Africa, but the I School program trained us to ask the right questions and understand the situation and the stakeholders before we jumped blindly into engineering a solution,” explained Tsai.
“It’s not just about the technology: it’s about the people who use the technology,” said Dandavate. “So we started by being explicit about the values we wanted to incorporate.” The team designed for the ideal world where everyone has a smartphone — but also for the real world, where people may be without smartphones, have limited bandwidth or even limited literacy.
To make sure their design would work in the real world, the team conducted interviews with six regional experts over the weekend: two on the ground in West Africa (including the WARFP regional coordinator) and four others with experience in the region.
“The challenge of unsustainable fishing is really complex,” Tsai observed. “We knew that to make an impact, a solution would have to take into account the social, cultural and political contexts.”
The resulting tool, called “Fish DB,” allows fishers to register their boats, get fishing licenses and report any illegal fishing activity they observe. It serves both the fishers who need to submit registrations and the government staff who process them. The result is a three-prong tool:
For the “ideal world,” a browser-based mobile app for fishermen to submit registration and license applications;
For the “real world,” a “graceful degradation” of the mobile app: an SMS-based system that supports all of the same registration processes using only SMS text messages, without requiring internet access; and
A web app for government employees to process the submissions.
Designed to be as usable for even fishers with marginal literacy, many of the mobile app’s menu options include pictures or diagrams to supplement the textual descriptions.
After 40 hours of design and development — and two nights sleeping with the fishes — the teams submitted their code and presented their projects to local judges Sunday morning. The finalists from each of the hackathon’s five sites presented their projects again on Tuesday in a live Google hangout, and the national judges awarded Fish DB the grand prize: a trip for two to the Philippines.
Tsai credited the School of Information with preparing the team well, saying design and research skills acquired there “really helped us make a cohesive and polished system. And with a lot of group projects from class under our belts, we were also comfortable presenting a compelling story to the judges.”
“It was a crazy day and a half,” added Dandavate. In the end, “we were able to build something that might actually make a real difference. It was really very rewarding.”
Video of all five finalists’ presentations is available online.