DigitalGlobe Inc. Takes the Search for Malaysian Flight MH370 to the Crowd

By Steve Anderson March 13, 2014

The value of crowdfunding by now is quite clear; it's brought a host of devices, games, movies, and more that otherwise wouldn't exist out into the field. But there are other uses for the crowd as well, and Colorado's DigitalGlobe Inc. is looking to turn to the crowd in order to find the Malaysian Airlines jet that went missing just last Saturday. How the company is set to do it, however, is even more exciting.

DigitalGlobe actually captured images from a pair of satellites in an area between the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, where the Boeing jet was originally believed to have crashed. This, of course, was before the Malaysian military interjected that the flight may have gone wildly off course, so it's entirely possible that the region DigitalGlobe photographed may have nothing to do with the actual search. But since the diversion was only a possibility, the plane may still be in one of these images. But the images in question represent a huge number, and that's where DigitalGlobe is looking to use the power of the crowd.

DigitalGlobe took the images it collected and posted same to Tomnod, its crowdsourcing site, calling on most anyone interested to go sifting through the images and spot any sign of the aircraft. DigitalGlobe senior manager Luke Barrington, who handles geospatial big data for the company, noted that the chances of spotting it from satellite imagery become pretty good, assuming the aircraft was seen at some point anywhere where the DigitalGlobe project was taking satellite photos. Given that that was an area measuring over 1,200 square miles, however, makes it at least a fair likelihood. DigitalGlobe actually did something similar in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, bringing in volunteers to tag over 60,000 images containing points to gauge the typhoon's destruction.

There's certainly no shortage of searchers for the missing plane; reports from the company described an “unprecedented level of Web traffic” being received as a result, and the company is continually adding new image collections to sift through in hopes of finding this missing aircraft and putting a lot of families' fears to rest. DigitalGlobe in turn has asked those who engage in searches to tag anything that looks like it may be part of a missing plane, which in turn will be fed to an algorithm that will look for patterns and potential strikes.

This is actually the kind of thing that could really catch on, particularly in widespread damage events like a typhoon or a missing aircraft or even hurricanes or the like. Having the power of several thousand eyes sifting through photographs of damage to provide summaries can not only make things easier on rescue workers—distinct purposes have to help in the face of scenes of enormous and often similar devastation—but the damage can be assessed by those with less emotional attachment; said photographs would be of events happening hundreds, possibly even thousands, of miles away. While there's always some emotional response, for those nowhere near the event it would likely be less than for those who grew up in the area.

DigitalGlobe may well have a great idea here for disaster response, in using crowdsourcing and satellite imagery to get a rundown on what's going on in a particular region. It may not be the ultimate replacement for first responders—there always needs to be both hands and eyes on the ground—but it could provide quite a bit of general, first-layer help in such situations.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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