Excuse me, Have you seen my plane?
March 20, 2014

Excuse Me, Have You Seen My Plane?

As you’ve surely heard, on March 8, a Malaysia Airlines flight went missing while enroute from Beijing to Kuala Lumpur. Flight MH 370 has been the object of search for many countries, and in many different, and challenging locations.

The interesting part is that you can help. CNN reports that DigitalGlobe, a Colorado firm that owns one of the world’s most advanced commercial satellite networks, has released thousands of detailed satellite images so that good Samaritans around the world can help search. This is one of the largest crowd sourcing efforts to date—so large in fact, that the company’s website, Tomnod.com, crashed.

Crowd sourcing is not new, (think Beta testing Windows or some video game) but it is growing in popularity. Citizen enthusiasts are asked to help with everything from creating Wikipedia.com to a crowd-sourced documentary, The American Revolution, to Lego designs to transcribing census data for the National Archives.

Scientific American maintains a list of current Citizen Science projects that you can participate in. These projects range from games that let you create synthetic RNA designs to studying Hubble Telescope images to playing with your Quadicopter for the European Space Agency.

Going back to the flight, though, finding it won’t be easy.

“This is a real needle-in-the-haystack problem, except the haystack is in the middle of the ocean,” Luke Barrington of DigitalGlobe told CNN affiliate KMGH. “I will ask you to mark anything that looks interesting, any signs of wreckage or life rafts.”

The DigitalGlobe images cover the Gulf of Thailand. They were taken from 400 miles above the water, but can identify a detail as small as the home plate of a baseball field. The biggest challenge is finding the manpower to search 1,235 square miles of area. And they are adding more, the Straits of Malacca for one.

“In many cases, the areas covered are so large, or the things we’re looking for are so hard to find, that without the help of hundreds of thousands of people online, we’d never be able to find them,” Barrington said.

Hindustan Times reports that currently the search area is 2.93 million nautical miles, from central Asia to the southern Indian Ocean, with 26 countries involved in the search. Three million of those searchers are people just like you.

On the website, you are given directions to look for oil slicks, wreckage, life rafts, or anything interesting or suspicious. You log in your finds, which are added to the interactive map. This maps is helping authorities in many countries narrow down their search areas, mainly by eliminating the grid zones that are clear of anything interesting to look for.

Why is narrowing the search area so important? There is a battery in the emergency beacon that will transmit a signal, despite the transponder being turned off. The beacon isn’t very long ranged, however, and the battery will only last a month or so. And we are 11 days into that month already.

Digitalglobe has been helpful before. After November’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines, volunteers tagged more than 60,000 objects of interest from satellite photos, which was forwarded to emergency responders. They used citizen scientists to track damage in Moore, Oklahoma after the huge tornado last year, and the Colorado floods. They even helped to locate the remains of two missing hikers in Peru.

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