How experimentation broke the hamster wheel of conventional thinking


Squawk·a·thon \skwok-ə-thän\ noun
An event that brings together marine bird scientists, design-thinkers, and technical developers to innovate solutions for detecting and mitigating endangered bird bycatch on fishing vessels.

Squawkathon’s a Funny Name

The event logo and tagline
This hackathon is for the birds.

The Marine Bird team at the Packard Foundation had a clear and well-defined question they were trying to answer: How to better identify and track global seabird bycatch? And the team suspected that there might be some technological solutions they hadn’t considered.

This problem was perfect bait for a hackathon.

A traditional hackathon brings together computer programmers, graphic designers, interface designers and project managers to collaborate intensively on projects over the course of a day or a week. Sometimes the purpose is social or educational. Other times the goal is to actually build new software or hardware.

In Portland, Oregon, in September 2013, the Squawkathon brought together experts in the field of marine bird bycatch, fisheries experts, IT experts, graphic designers, user experience designers, conservation professionals, and academicians.

Their goal? To investigate creative solutions to the problem of seabird bycatch.


This was a multi-layered initiative, and there were different goals for each of the layers:

For the Squawkathon

Hack existing bycatch technology to improve areas such as technical architecture, software, timeliness of data delivery, data checking and error-correction, and automated data collection.

For the Marine Birds Program

Reduce mortality of seabirds, especially shearwaters and petrels, through reduction of bycatch. By doing so, help reverse the decline of seabirds in order to support the restoration of sustainable marine ecosystems.

For the Packard Foundation

Develop the Foundation’s arsenal of unconventional strategies for problem solving. Experiment with a way of engaging new and diverse perspectives in order to generate insight that might contribute to marine bird conservation. Specifically, the Squawkathon tested the concept of “design thinking” in its community-sourced problem-solving approach.

Buller's Albatross
Buller's Albatross with a Short-Tailed Shearwater behind.

#course of action

A brainstorming session on a whiteboard

The Branding

Events of this nature are essentially volunteer service, and fun branding can make a substantial difference in attendance. Context Partners and the Packard Foundation realized that they could get the marine bird experts to come, but they needed something to excite the designers and developers—the people who weren’t already invested in the issue. They went for creative branding and a message of doing good. As Scearce said, “it was about making a difference by applying their talent and having a good time in the process.”

Once they came up with the name—Squawkathon, a play on the more standard hackathon—the playful tagline and appealing graphic design followed: “A flock of nerds saving seabirds.”

“We felt like the biggest challenge was how to get the right people to come.”

– Wil Kristin, Community Centered Designer at Context Partners

The Event

The composition in the room was very different from what a science-driven organization like the Packard Foundation is used to: there were only 6 issue specialists to 20 hackers.

The tone of the event was also fairly unusual for the often-staid philanthropic sector—the Packard Foundation and Context Partners intentionally tried to make the Squawkathon fun. As the Squawkathon invitation said, “If you have design, programming, or project management chops, you can prevent the accidental death of marine birds. A monetary prize will be awarded to the winning team. Plus, there will be plenty of free food and beer.”

“It was about making a difference and having a good time in the process.”

– Diana Scearce, Evaluation and Learning Director at the Packard Foundation

A group of marine bird experts introduced the problem, and then the room broke into strategic groups, with at least one science expert on each team to work with the “hackers.” Three teams presented their solutions in brief presentations at the end of the second day, and a panel of judges from the Packard Foundation and Context Partners designated a winner.

Watch as birds of a different feather come together to hack solutions.

The Solutions

Team Fish or Foul developed a social change game for building a movement of conscious consumers and citizen supporters of “feather-free fisheries.”

Team HYDRA developed new streamer line technology to help keep streamer lines separated and in place. Streamer lines are attached to fishing boats to deter birds from getting to the fishing lines and getting caught.

Team Pelagic Longline Data Collection, the winner, proposed a suite of data collection and monitoring tools to capture, track, and share bycatch data via a “modular app.” The marine bird conservation community struggles with ineffective collection and tracking of bycatch data and the inability to verify the use of mitigation gear on fishing vessels.

Watch presentation highlights from the Squawkathon.


The Packard Foundation was interested in coming up with new ideas to push the organization’s programs beyond conventional methods of problem solving and grantmaking. The purpose of the event was to brainstorm ideas, not to reach hard-and-fast solutions.

In that sense, having a successful Squawkathon—one that was well attended and proved fruitful in its thinking about a specific problem—was an achievement in itself.

“Maybe there is some light that has been shed; maybe we put together 300 pieces of a 3,000 piece puzzle,” said Stephanie Schlecht, former communications officer at the Packed Foundation.

“The big takeaway for me was more openness to non-traditional ways of meeting and learning,” said Myriah Cornwell, Marine Birds program officer at the Foundation.

The experiment was a success.

A presentation slide from the winning team of how longline fishing works.
Team Pelagic Longline Data Collection's diagram of how longline fishing works.


Wield your brand.


Listen first, talk later.

Report back.

Wield Your Brand

Make it into what you want it to be. High quality branding makes a difference. Smart, creative branding drives traffic to an event, an initiative, or a campaign. It sets the tone.

“We never get to do things like this. We never have mascots and branding.”

– Marine Bird Expert and Squawkathon Participant


Look to other fields for ideas. Design thinking, for example, can help foundations—and program staff—think through challenges when they are stuck, connect them to new partners, and help raise awareness for the problem within the community.

Listen First, Talk Later

Communications is about both listening and speaking. The Squawkathon was a chance for the Packard Foundation to do both—to educate a community about a problem, and ask for ideas in solving it.

“When we use the Foundation’s convening power, it is typically used in a very orchestrated and controlled way,” said Cornwell, program officer at The Packard Foundation. “This was a clear departure from those conventions. It was closer to an ‘un-conference’ than your typical series of talking heads. It was really about coming together.”

“Communications is a tool in your toolbox to help solve problems. It’s not a megaphone or a broadcast channel.”

– Stephanie Schlecht, former communications officer at the Packard Foundation

Report Back

Use internal communications to support organizational learning. Experimentation is all about learning, and it works best if you communicate about what you’ve learned so that the benefits are shared. In this case, the Packard Foundation gathered potential ideas for solving the problem of marine bird bycatch, and they also learned about a new tool—hackathons. Then the teams involved in the Squawkathon took their findings back to the rest of the organization through a hands-on staff-wide learning session and a brown bag lunch. They created a teachable moment.

Context Partners

Context Partners

Context Partners is a new type of design firm focused on community. They create relationships and dynamic human networks that help aspirational brands and causes succeed. Context Partners believes that understanding people and communities and leveraging the power of these relationships is the best way to help companies and organizations thrive.

The bird’s the word. Help this story grow wings by sharing.