As 6.3 million volunteers scour satellite images for signs of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, the needle-in-a-haystack effort echoes an earlier hunt: When adventurer Steve Fossett vanished during a flight in September 2007, 50,000 computer users mobilized to comb through more than 300,000 satellite images.
The online search for Fossett was a spectacular and expensive failure (a hiker stumbled across his belongings a year later); the second in a row for the nascent technology. Earlier in 2007, San Francisco tech guru Jim Gray set out aboard his 40 foot sailboat and disappeared. When the coastguard search floundered, one of Gray's colleagues wondered if satellites could help find him. Soon after, that patch of ocean became one of the most heavily scrutinized places on earth, with 12,000 volunteers searching through images from three satellites. Gray was never found.
Based on such high-profile failures, it's easy to assume crowdsourced searches are ultimately useless exercises. But especially in the backcountry the idea is gaining traction – and, given the ubiquity of UAVs and high-resolution cameras, there are some notable successes. "It's the wave of the future," says Dan Buckley, Superintendent of Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve in Idaho, who successfully found a missing hiker when they were shooting fly-over photos to be crowdsourced. Besides, he says, it's safer for search and rescue operatives. "We had limited the exposure of folks on the ground," he says. "The terrain can be so treacherous."
Is crowdsourcing here to stay? To answer this, we looked at the brief history of crowdsourcing disasters including the hits, misses, and lessons learned.
Jim Gray sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge aboard his red-hulled, 40-foot sailboat "Tenacious" in January 2007 and was never seen again. Friends in the tech industry came up with an extraordinary idea to aid in the search. Three satellites were re-routed over the search area and the subsequent images were uploaded on Amazon's Mechanical Turk. The monochrome images yielded a few possible hits but unfortunately the new concept failed when the ocean's current patterns and weather delays meant the objects (whatever they may have been) were long gone by the time search planes followed up.
Credit: Kimberly White / Bloomberg News / Getty Images