The ability to search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared on March 8, is now open to the public as individuals like you and me are being called on to help with the hunt by combing through hundreds of satellite images for clues that could help locate the Boeing 777-200.
DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based company that specializes in space imagery, has uploaded substantial amounts of pictures of the Gulf of Thailand to Tomnod, a crowdsourcing platform for satellite imagery that was acquired by DigitalGlobe last year. The pictures were taken in the days after the Malaysian Airlines plane and its 239 passengers went missing. DigitalGlobe is asking for the public’s help in examining the images in hopes that traces of the airplane, such as oil slicks, debris, or life rafts will be located with the help of Internet volunteers.
Clients of DigitalGlobe include NASA, Google Earth, and Google Maps.
Visitors to the Tomnod site are presented with a satellite image that spans approximately 2,000 sq ft. Users are asked to review the image and tag anything that might look like wreckage, a life raft, an oil slick, or other items that may be of interest such as a curious shape or shadow. Users typically scroll through dozens or even hundreds of images in one sitting, allowing for vast area coverage.
Since DigitalGlobe launched its crowdsourcing search on March 10, Tomnod has received over 2 million participants and more than 190 million map views. The flood of visitors has caused the site to crash on several occasions, including a minor glitch today, which was likely caused by renewed interest in the site following the addition of new imagery over the weekend. With the recent revelations that Flight MH370’s location may be well beyond the Gulf of Thailand, Tomnod has expanded its crowdsourcing search to include satellite images of the Straits of Malacca and the Indian Ocean. Now approximately 30,000 sq km of area has been uploaded to Tomnod.
Last November, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, DigitalGlobe uploaded “before” and “after” photos of the Philippines to Tomnod. Users were asked to tag major destruction, damaged residences, and debris. The information was then passed on to relief officials. Tomnod’s Typhoon Haiyan campaign received over 800,000 views and over 400,000 points of interest were tagged.
While some are praising DigitalGlobe’s crowdsourcing campaign, others remain hesitant to welcome the inclusion of the public into fragile investigations. The wrongful naming of Sunil Tripathi as a suspect in the Bostom Marathon bombings by “Internet detectives” sheds light on the problems surrounding crowsourced investigations. Tripathi, a Brown University undergraduate student had gone missing a month prior to the 15 April 2013 bombings. In the days following the bombing, Tripathi had been identified by anonymous users of Reddit, 4cha, Facebook, and Twitter as the leading suspect in the case before the FBI released photos of the Tsarnaev brothers. Tripathi’s body was found floating in the Providence River on 23 April 2013.