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.
When the search for missing dayhiker Jodean Elliott-Blakeslee stretched into October 2013, officials at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho decided to enlist virtual help. A fixed wing plane went up first, but those images were taken from too high up to be useful. That's when Superintendent Buckley thought UAV technology might help. Buckley wasn't able to borrow a UAV that would have enough power to cover the territory, but he did arrange for a photographer in a helicopter. It turned out they didn't even need a crowd to find Elliott-Blakeslee – who was located by a spotter on the flight – but Buckley says one of the 1,700 images would have solved the mystery, "The photos picked up every anomaly, from a cow skull to a weather balloon."
Credit: Craters of the Moon National Monument