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.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
As the search for Flight 370 moved into the Southern Ocean, 6.3 million people were still clicking their way though satellite images. So far there have been over 485 million map views and the crowd has tagged over 6.7 million features, many of which (thanks to excessive plastic pollution in the ocean) are literally garbage. While Tomnod and DigitalGlobe meticulously compile the tags, the sheer quantity of information they're managing is mind boggling.
Not only is the search area huge and undefined, but the number of items that are identified, plus weather and drift patterns, means it may take days (or weeks) for searchers to find them and check them out. Meanwhile, expert technicians have a bit of an edge on the volunteers. Using a variety of tools to analyze the images, experts are able to rule out more of the non-plane debris and focus on objects (such as those in the Southern Ocean) that are a better match.
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