The following story was published in the Spring 2016 issue of the BayGeo Journal and you can see it there.

I used to spend a substantial amount of time in college sorting beetles, titrating solutions and wading about in estuaries, but career paths are seldom linear and I’m now consumed by databases and scripts behind a desk in Silicon Valley. Because of my scientific background I don’t often feel like I fit in with my coworkers. Whenever I go out to a techie event, be it a symposium at Mapzen or a hackathon, I try to wear camouflage. I’ll wear a free t-shirt I’ve picked up at a conference that I’ve snuck into and I’ve plastered my laptop with the sticker equivalent of the same. I was once offered an IT job while in a check out line in an Oakland Walgreens so I guess it works but my integration with the greater tech community is only hoodie-deep.

I reluctantly signed up for the international Fishackathon this spring because it was hosted by Manylabs, a nonprofit hackerspace in SOMA whose work in environmental monitoring devices has had me drooling for over a year. I was not planning on the hackathon itself to be much more than schmoozing and free bagels. In my experience, hackathons are playgrounds for extraordinarily intelligent, hardworking and creative people to donate their top-billable hours to tackle scientific problems that they clearly don’t fully understand. When I’ve participated in events like this in the past my role as an environmental scientist and GIS guy was to listen to coders enthusiastically describe their plans, to which I would respond with “mmhhmm, yes, yes, but that’s not how the ocean works.” In a predictable ballistic arc, the prototype rockets upward through the competition amid heroic fanfare and backslapping, absorbs praise across GitHub and Twitter at its apex and then free falls out of public consciousness several weeks later when people realize that apps can only do so much and the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this new software gift are completely uninterested.

The Fishackathon organizers shared my skepticism of hackathons and made sure that the competition had a very specific wish list from government agencies and nonprofits around the world that had a real problem that could be solved with good code. There were pleas from fisheries agencies in the Philippines to compile Marine Protected Areas, and Coast Guard fishing enforcement teams looking for better ways to keep track of serial poachers.

Early on, Matt Merrifield, the Chief Technology Officer of The Nature Conservancy, approached me. He explained that, in the course of laying crab pots on the shallow shelf just off the coast of California, gear occasionally goes missing. A buoy can go loose, or a wave or a careless boater can drag a pot off its anchor. The nylon cords can persist for decades and entangle large marine mammals, including whales, while the abandoned pot will continue to capture crabs. Without a fisherman to periodically empty it, the pot will continue to trap crustaceans which then die inside it and attract other hungry crabs to a cannibalistic feast after which they too will die in a vicious cycle that only ends when the box of wire and plastic degrades into the sea. The result is a crab pot that is functionally intact but economically useless. This is known as “ghost gear.” Since each pot can cost several hundred dollars and each interruption of the short crab season is time not spent catching crabs, losing equipment into the ocean isn’t just an ecological disaster, it’s one that is threatening a maritime economy and way of life. There are dozens of apps that try to report marine debris for scientific surveys and awareness but what excited me about this project was that there was a serious economic incentive to remove that equipment from the ecosystem. Matt wanted us to make a system for reporting, recovering and retrieving this ghost gear.

Note: my friend Dr. Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science tells me that the preferred term among the fishing community tends to be “fisherman/fishermen” regardless of gender identity. This is a linguistic convention that I honor so long as folks who fish continue to identify with it.

Fishermen, so I’ve been told, have a tendency of adopting the personality of the species that they pursue. A secretive and solitary species like the Dungeness crab requires that its adversary be secretive and solitary as well. No fisherman is interested in giving Greenpeace an easy headline to blast their profession, so using Craigslist to find and resell lost gear would only advertise how frequently the fishing industry actually loses gear. Our team created a private system for reporting lost gear that we christened “Ghost Gear Recon” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to a popular video game (I’ve never played Ghost Recon, by the way). Now, a fisherman who sees a loose crab pot can take a photo with their GPS enabled cell phone, email it to our domain name with the subject line “found gear” and the program will strip the metadata off of the photo and the picture will be added to the map online as a pin. A fisherman looking to retrieve their gear can go online, look for found gear observed in the neighborhood, and either go out to sea and pick up the gear themselves by plugging the lat/long into their navigation device, or, if the gear has already been recovered, contact the finder with their contact information so a transfer can be arranged, usually for a small finder fee.

Dan Hackner and Roger Awad did the programmatic and database architecture and I made the map using a Mapbox instance that would automatically pull data from a GeoJSON database. I actually felt pretty useful and proud of my contributions, especially when our project was awarded first place at the San Francisco chapter of the international event. Our project will be pitted against global competition on June 8th.

Most important to me, The Nature Conservancy is very enthusiastic about Ghost Gear Recon and they intend to take ownership of the project to make sure it gets the support it deserves as the fishing community adopts it. While I was proud that my map came out looking slick and stylish like the ones I’ve seen by the talented folks at Maptime, I may have been trying to blend in a bit too much. I’ll be replacing it with a more basic georeferenced nautical chart from NOAA so that crab fishermen have access to a more familiar set of landmarks.

It’s funny how much the tech community prides itself on being innovative and revolutionary while being so frustratingly homogeneous at times. At this event, I learned about software, programming, illegal fishing and I got to contribute my knowledge of mapping platforms and data availability. In fact, I was useful because I wasn’t very techy, not despite it. It’s fun to pretend to be someone you’re not and infiltrate an event to learn about a field that’s not your own, but when it comes down to getting a product made there’s much to be said for being an outsider.

Special thanks to CartoDB and Mapbox for providing free mapping platforms, and gmail for donating our email account hosting and .US domain name.

DevPost write up:


Maps, conservation, insects, film, boats, scuba diving

Maps, conservation, insects, film, boats, scuba diving