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 British tourist Tom Billings disappeared in Vancouver, B.C. in November 2013 he left few clues. With the suggestion he may have headed off hiking alone in the North Shore mountains, North Shore Rescue, with financial assistance from the Billings family, used a helicopter to record high-quality video of the area and posted it on YouTube with a request for members of the public to search it for signs. Doug Pope from NSR says the video generated a great response: "Hours of film have since been reviewed – something the volunteer staff just doesn't have time to do." While Billings is still missing, Pope says they did get credible information, and they will use crowdsourcing again.