By Palau Shavin
On the morning of March 8, Sam Hooi and his friends, like millions of Malaysians, heard the news about MAS Flight MH370, which had gone missing. The KL-Beijing flight carrying 239 passengers and crew disappeared from radar just before it entered Vietnamese airspace.
As the days went by, aviation experts and TV pundits the world over poured over every facet of the mystery even as authorities scrambled to search for signs of the wreckage.
The search-and-rescue (SAR) operation was initially centred in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, before expanding to include the Andaman Sea, the Straits of Malacca and, later, the Indian Ocean. At one point, 26 countries were involved in the search for the missing plane, though that number has now dropped to eight after the search area was narrowed to the Southern Indian Ocean.
The initial search area covered an astounding 30 million square miles of sea and land, leaving experts to speculate that finding the plane would be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. But was there a way to get more eyeballs search for MH370?
Luckily for Sam and many other concerned netizens, it turned out that there was a way they could contribute to the search: by helping to go through satellite images for signs of wreckage or even oil slicks that may be traced to the plane.
Ordinary Internet users – 3 million and counting – have signed up in a crowdsourced search organised by DigitalGlobe, a US-based company specialising in satellite imagery. DigitalGlobe provides satellite imagery to Google Maps, among others.
When Flight MH370 disappeared on March 8, the company opened up massive amounts of recent pictures of the Gulf of Thailand for public inspection. DigitalGlobe said it hopes ordinary Internet users “will spot something that searchers have missed”. Internet users can log on to a web portal and immediately start searching via assigned grids.
The search is conducted via Tomnod, a crowdsourcing platform for satellite imagery that DigitalGlobe acquired in 2013. Using the platform, users can search thousands of miles of recent satellite footage and tag anything they believe might indicate wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks, or anything anomalous. These tagged images would then be sent to the authorities for further analysis.
This is not the first time the platform has been used for crowdsourced disaster investigations over the past year; according to Tomnod’s Facebook page, other cases included flooding in Bolivia, mapping the aftermath of Typhoon Hainan, fires in Australia, and flooding in the United Kingdom. To date, Tomnod’s best known project was an attempt to find a lost yacht in the Tasman Sea.
It does all this by leveraging on crowdsourcing.
What is crowdsourcing?
In simple terms, it is the practice of obtaining services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially an online community, to achieve a goal.
The term “crowdsourcing” is a combination of the word “crowd” and “outsourcing” and was coined in 2005.
Crowdsourcing can involve division of labour for tedious tasks split to use crowd-based outsourcing, but it can also apply to specific requests, such as crowdfunding, a broad-based competition, and a general search for answers, solutions, or a missing person.
Crowdsourcing is used by businesses, non-profit organisations, government agencies, scientists, artists and individuals.
Examples include Wikipedia, which allows anyone from around the world with knowledge on a specific topic to contribute to an online encyclopaedia project, and Yahoo Answers, which sources users to give the best answer to questions posed by other users.
Collaborating online for open science helped the US Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health to complete the Human Genome Project – the first large scientific undertaking to address potential ethical, legal and social issues and implications arising from project data – two years ahead of time.
Another example of crowdsourcing is as stock photo sites such as iStockphoto, Shutterstock, Dreamstime and 123rf, which offer amateur photographers a platform to showcase their photos and earn some money along the way.
For instance, iStockphoto currently pays contributors using a variable system based on the lifetime download total of a contributor’s works. The more times photos have been downloaded, the better the “canister” level a contributor earns and the larger the fraction of the royalty payment iStockphoto passes from the customer to the contributor. In addition, contributors who sell exclusively through iStockphoto get a higher percentage.
Of course, the explosive growth of such crowdsourced photo sites has effectively undercut professional freelance photographers who used to deal in stock photos. If you were a company, why would you pay US$200 per photo from a professional freelancer when you could pay US$5 for one from a crowdsourced stock photo site?
Still, crowdsourcing has been able to give more people a chance at getting a slice of the pie, even if it is just a tiny bit.
As for Sam and his friends, they’ve been diligently logging on to Tomnod every night and spending an hour or two looking at satellite images, one grid at a time, hoping to find something – anything – of MH370. Though it is at times frustrating, he reckons this better than being an armchair critic of the SAR efforts or wasting time with conspiracy theories.
“At least I am doing something that could turn out to be useful in finding the plane and bringing closure to all the family members of the lost passengers and crew,” he said.