How Packard Foundation's Squawkathon Is Saving Seabirds

Free food and beer and a cash prize — these were recently promised by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to lure scientists, designers, developers, and project managers to the first-ever Squawkathon. The name may be odd, but the cause is pure. Held on September 13, 2013 in Portland, Oregon, the purpose of the event was to bring together creative, tech-savvy types to design a way to better identify and track global seabird bycatch. (See Packard Foundation: Grants for Marine and Rivers.)

Bycatch — the unintentional harvesting of nontarget species — kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds each year. The birds, trailing after fishing boats and hoping to catch an easy meal, are often caught on longline hooks. Seabird bycatch is considered to be one of the greatest threats to many of these species. Currently, 37% of the world's 264 seabird species are listed as "threatened" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, however, is on the job, with the Squawkathon as one of its many seabird conservation efforts. The Squawkathon charged its participants with finding a new way to track seabird bycatch, and designs were judged based on five criteria. The winning design had to: 1) follow sound design principles, 2) be innovative, 3) be feasible, 4) communicate well, and 5) be readily testable. The design had to further recognize that there would be no one-size-fits-all monitoring system and that the sentiments of fishermen should be taken into account. (Read Director of Conservation Walt Reid's IP profile.)

The 2013 winning design used a video monitoring system installed on fishing boats to track bycatch and use of bycatch mitigation gear. The monitoring system would connect to a tablet application where fishermen could record fish landings and oceanographic data. This data, in turn, could help fishermen in their bookkeeping to comply with legal requirements and to keep track of numbers for business planning, seafood branding, or priority licensing. Of the runners-up, one created an online game to increase citizen awareness of bycatch issues, while the other runner-up focused on streamer lines, a technology to prevent birds from getting too close to the fishing lines.

It will be interesting to see if Packard hosts further Squawkathons and whether the Squawkathon is a sign of the foundation's move toward more collaborative crowd-sourcing events. The event surely shows Packard's willingness to embrace new partnerships and creative ways to find new solutions. The Squawkathon was held in partnership with Context Partners, a community-centered design consultancy.