Coding for conservation: Hackathons generate apps and ideas

  • 'Hacking' is creative problem solving, commonly through emerging technology and often at short fast-moving, caffeine-assisted events.
  • The Hackathon for Wildlife aimed to develop innovative approaches to connect 20 million people worldwide to wild animals, through a combination of technologies that include GPS hardware, data, games, and social media.
  • Hackathon teams pitch their ideas, brainstorm, develop prototypes, and demonstrate their designs to compete for prizes, glory, and, here, some new tools for engaging a wider audience for conservation.

What is a hackathon?

‘Hacking’ is creative problem solving, commonly through emerging technology. A ‘hackathon’ is an event where people, usually with tech backgrounds, come together to solve problems. Participants usually form teams and dive into the target problem(s), often for 1-3 days, and collaboratively produce (often through coding) a unique solution.  The events are intended to be fun and productive sessions that channel the group’s collective positive energy toward solving real-world problems.

But can such short events attended by folks with limited wildlife knowledge actually encourage tech innovation with potential to improve nature conservation?

To learn more, WildTech attended a “Hackathon for Wildlife” in mid-November and spoke with Gautam Shah, creator of Internet for Elephants, a social enterprise that leverages information technology to improve wildlife conservation, and organizer of the Chicago Hackathon for Wildlife.

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The inspiration for a hackathon for wildlife. Photo credit: George Powell

Who organizes hackathons?

Anyone with a challenge and the ability to interest people in trying to solve it can organize a hackathon – here are some guidelines for hosting. WildTech asked Shah, an experienced data analyst with a passion for wildlife, what motivated him to organize and produce a hackathon for wildlife.

“The aim is to help 20 million people engage with wildlife – I’m 44 and don’t have time to think small,” he explained. “We are using data from real wildlife studies; we are ready to take data and figure out the best ways to engage audiences. Having an event helps get attention to an idea or process.”

Shah suggested three key activities for a successful hackathon:

  1. “You need to do lots of networking – I have a list this long of all the sponsors I didn’t get!”
  2. “Once you get some momentum, you need the help of others to promote, organize, and implement the event.” For the Hackathon for Wildlife, different people promoted the event, provided data, researched other tech designs, produced an “inspiration gallery” for participants, spoke to and educated the group, presented products, and filmed the whole event.
  3. “Be sure to engage people immediately after they register, rather than wait until they arrive, especially when it is a free event and people give up their whole weekend, so there’s more potential for them to change their mind.”
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Hackathon participants listen to idea pitches from their colleagues. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

What is the aim?

The general goal is to quickly develop a product that solves the challenge presented at the start of the event. Products generally take the form of websites, mobile apps, and robots, which can be created on the spot with limited time and resources. The Facebook “Like” button, for example, was apparently designed at a hackathon. Participants also seek less tangible outcomes, including the chance to meet like-minded people, learn new skills, and use these skills creatively to build something new that addresses a particular challenge.

The challenge proposed for the Hackathon for Wildlife was to “Develop innovative approaches and business models to connect 20 million people worldwide with wild animals, through a combination of technologies that include GPS hardware, data, games, and social media.”  The challenge built on the worldwide outrage about the killing of a lion named Cecil in Zimbabwe. Once people knew his name, he gained celebrity status and the concern of many thousands of people.  Might games or social media be venues for generating this kind of compassion for other wild animals?

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One way to generate ideas. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

Who attends?

Participants are typically technology developers, designers, programmers, and user-interface experts.  A themed hackathon might also attract subject-matter experts.

At the Hackathon for Wildlife, attendees included 13 tech and wildlife specialists from companies including ESRI, BRCK, and Amazon, and seven local and international wildlife organizations. Among the 65 participants were also wildlife enthusiasts, computer science students, teachers, and working professionals.

What do they do at the event?

Participants mainly work furiously to complete a project that was likely proposed and agreed upon hours before. After a brief introduction to people and objectives, teams of 3 to 8 people, who often have just met one another, self-select to work collaboratively toward a particular idea or solution to the hackathon’s challenge. (Hackathon for Wildlife participants formed 10 teams.)

They spend the next 24 to 48 hours (usually a weekend) brainstorming, designing, coding, and learning new technologies, with the goal of producing a prototype for that concept. They also might attend one or more short training sessions.

Because this hackathon’s theme was connecting people with wildlife, several subject-matter experts offered information sessions on topics including marine and terrestrial animal communities, wildlife tracking and behavior data, and wildlife poaching in Africa, to guide the hackers toward real problems.

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Biologist Henrik Rasmussen of Savannah Tracking explains elephant tracking data to a tech and design hacker crowd. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

What’s it like? What happens?

There’s a bit of a buzz to these events, in the form of learning, building, and inspiration to solve a problem. Plus caffeine. Each team leader has the opportunity to pitch his or her idea to the crowd, and others can join a team with a project of interest.

Participants join teams and start from scratch to develop a working prototype of the solution. The time constraints add a bit of urgency to the hacking, and the format lends itself to computer-based solutions, including graphics, models, mobile apps, programs, and presentations.

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Concentrated coding at the Hackathon for Wildlife. Photo credit: Internet of Elephants

With caffeine, food and advice generally available on site, participants partake of each of these as needed throughout the next 24-36 hours as they design, formulate, and build their solutions. Have a look at this video of the Hackathon for Wildlife for a quick visual summary.

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Those quiet, challenging moments in the early morning of a hackathon. Photo credit: Internet of Elephants

What is the result?

After the hacking’s over, each team demonstrates its solution to a jury, or, in this case, to the rest of the attendees, for judging. There are generally prizes for the winning teams, though the point isn’t always just to win — any good idea has the potential to move forward with the right people backing it.  The jury and prizes are just for an added level of fun and incentives.

The Hackathon for Wildlife gave out cash prizes in several categories:

  • Best overall concept and prototype that aligns with the event’s challenge brief
  • Most innovative technology
  • Best prototype
  • Greatest potential impact to wildlife conservation
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The team with the overall winning design – the Sealfie selfie app. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

A number of ideas were pitched, using the advice and data provided by the subject matter experts. The winning designs in each category were, respectively:

Sealfie – an app to show people their commonalities with animals. It presents a photo of an animal reflecting your chosen mood, you take a selfie making the animal’s expression and send both to your friends, and you can learn a bit more about the animal or donate to help its cause. Engages an audience that wouldn’t normally investigate an endangered species.

VultuRe – an app that uses a learning platform with virtual reality experiences. Using virtual reality goggles, a child can zoom into an actual location on a map to see the place and an animal, and a pen pal from the local country shows him the species and the cultural surroundings. The user can also go on a virtual safari or ask a virtual expert about what s/he is seeing.

Finding Tim – an interactive game to allow people to experience life as an animal. You pick an animal and go on a quest into their lives, experiencing what they experience and interacting with others. Each character faces certain threats and opportunities. The game connects players while giving them the perspective of other species.

Habitap – an app that allows users to follow animals in real-time, to raise awareness and money for wildlife conservation. You can, for instance, follow a particular animal around on your phone’s map, similar to following your Facebook friends.  It personalizes data by presenting the environment in the context of the animal as your friend, and it suggests other animals you might be interested getting to know better.

Regardless of which teams won, all ideas submitted at the event were considered “open-source” – any team able to move a concept forward was permitted to do so for any of the proposed solutions. After all, Shah said, “the real prize is if we come up with ways to better celebrate wildlife.”

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Happy hackers. Photo credit: Internet of Elephants

In the end, Shah and the hackathon participants were pleased with the event.

“It was fun to be a part of this Hackathon, knowing that this is for a specific cause. It pushes us harder!” said marketing consultant Riley Masunaga, one of the Sealfie creators.

“I felt invigorated by the energy of the hackathon and am proud of the ideas we came up with in just 36 hours,” added fellow participant Scott Goodwin. “Now I am thinking about how we can take these concepts to the next level and engage more people in wildlife conservation.”

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