Crowd-sourcing the Search For Flight 370

There are few news stories that capture and hold my interest, but I’ve been following the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Air MH370 very closely. At first it was the simple yet crushing tragedy of 239 souls being lost, most likely to human cruelty. But it’s the echoes of Twilight Zone and Stephen King stories–the sheer strangeness of it all–that has so many people riveted.

In a modern world where our satellites can read a licence plate from space, the idea of losing one of the largest and most advanced commercial aircraft in operation simply does not compute.

Clearly, other people are feeling the same way, since as of the last reporting about 2 million have participated at Digital Globe‘s Tomnod platform to aid in the search by scanning and tagging slices of satellite imagery.

There are elements of gimmickry and marketing in the effort, since the likelihood of amateurs properly identifying aircraft wreckage from satellite imagery seems remote. However, it reminds me of the Oxyrhynchus Project, which used a similar crowd-sourcing approach to scanning and tagging tens of thousands of ancient document fragments in an effort to identify them. You never know what this might yield.

What does Tomnod allow you to do? Very simply, it allows you to scan a small slice of satellite imagery and tag anything that looks suspicious. Digital Globe has satellites that are  photographing a 24,000 square kilometer, and they’ve been shifting their focus as the story develops.

Much of this is just open ocean, but as people see things that might be wreckage, they tag them and submit. I’m assuming that Tomnod is collecting multiple results from the same image slices. That way, they can combine results and only look more closely at things tagged by multiple users, which are more likely to show something useful. With 645,000 tags submitted thus far, there’s no way they can analyze each tag.

Does this actually serve any constructive purpose at all, beyond increasing the profile of the Tomnod brand? It’s certainly possible something may come out of it all. Two million pairs of eyeballs scanning relatively featureless ocean surface may well churn up some usable piece of information. The utility of crowd-sourcing this kind of data crunching has yet to be really proven or dis-proven.

More to the point is the psychological factor, as people transfixed by a tragedy with an undeniably mysterious element find a way to channel their attention into something potentially useful.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.