The State Department's "Fishackathon": Using Tech to Solve Ocean Issues

Some coders, technologists, and designers like to hack--or solve problems--for social good. That's great news for scientists like me, tackling daunting ocean issues, because we need all the technological help we can get.

That's why I'm a huge fan of the U.S. Department of State's annual Fishackathon, launched in 2014. It's a weekend that brings together eager hackers and ocean experts from around the world.

Fishackathons are hosted all over the world by aquariums, universities and tech hubs, and supported with good food and prizes by embassies, governments and small businesses.

Last year's event lured 400 coders from 5 countries to 12 host cities, and this year promises to be even bigger, with over 40 cities already planning to take part.

The Goal: Understanding Overfishing

The event aims to address the enormous environmental and economic problem of worldwide overfishing. Overfishing can be devastating to ecosystems, and also to small-scale fishermen in developing countries. 1.5 billion people rely on fish as a main source of protein, but overfishing, and a decline in catches, is leaving communities hungry and fishermen without anything to harvest.

To solve a problem this big, we need more data, and an array of workable solutions targeting key challenges.

We know very little about the marine ecosystems that span the earth's surface. Just looking at marine life, and taking measurements, is more difficult in the ocean than on land. Fish are hard to see, difficult to count, and always in motion. Underwater, mysteries abound. It's a problem for scientists, but also the kind of challenge that inspires eager minds.

Fishackathon provides that inspiration. It asks ocean experts to submit problems--for example--how to measure fish size and age underwater, or how to help port inspectors more quickly and accurately report catches and illegal fishing activity.

Teams then set to work applying their knowledge and creativity to find a technological solution to one of those problems. After three days, the groups present their work to an expert panel of judges, who award prizes to the top contenders, such as an expenses-paid trip to showcase their tech invention at a major technology conference. All programming code is open source, which allows the public to go online and use or improve upon the work.

I'm delighted that the State Department is pulling people together to do the good work of supporting healthy oceans, and I'm eager to hear the brilliant solutions proposed by this year's creative minds.

To learn more about Fishackathon events, visit or contact the Secretary's Office of Global Partnerships at You can follow Fishackathon on social media at @fishackathon, @GPatState, and #codeforfish.