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.
The last time the 70ft schooner Niña was heard from was June 4, 2013, when the crew of seven reported bad weather en route from New Zealand to Australia. The search and rescue efforts by the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand were massive. But when the official search was called off in July, family members of the U.S. crew weren't ready to give up. Working with Texas Equusearch and Tomnod, the family enlisted over 13,000 volunteers, who scoured 3,248,584 individual satellite images. Searchers pinpointed two possibilities and tried to determine their location using drift models. The effort was hampered by time it took to raise money for each air search because officials felt too much time had passed for the satellite images to be of use. No sign of the yacht was found.
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