Authorities are stumped by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 several days ago. As always, the Internet is lit up by discussion, speculation and amateur attempts to solve the mystery. But in a twist that marries proprietary information with crowdsourced investigations, one of the world's largest satellite imagery firms is asking the general public to track down clues about the missing aircraft.
Colorado-based DigitalGlobe, which provides satellite imagery to Google Maps and others, is opening up massive amounts of recent pictures of the Gulf of Thailand for public inspection. The company hopes that ordinary Internet users will spot something that searchers have missed—Flight 370 disappeared over a huge search area; the sheer volume of sea that investigators have to look over offers an entry for amateur sleuths. Using a special web portal, thousands of ordinary folks (including any Fast Company reader currently viewing this article) can contribute a little bit of assistance to the search for Flight 370.
The amateur search takes place through Tomnod, a crowdsourcing platform for satellite imagery that DigitalGlobe acquired in 2013. Tomnod functions as a GIS (Geographic Information System) overlay for DigitalGlobe; using the platform, users go over thousands of miles of recent satellite footage collected by the company and tag anything they believe might indicate wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks, or anything anomalous. Satellite imagery posted through Tomnod is usually subscription-only for the company's partners (which range from Google to government agencies to energy companies to urban planners); during disaster events such as Flight 370, DigitalGlobe makes recent imagery available through Tomnod and to emergency managers free of charge. Tomnod's interface prevents users from zooming out and only allows for close inspection of satellite imagery, which is decoupled from any larger map of the area.
According to a DigitalGlobe statement, the company had their satellites collect imagery of the initial believed crash site near where the Gulf of Thailand meets the South China Sea on March 9, shortly after the crash was announced; on March 11, a second round of pictures were taken of a second area further north in the Gulf of Thailand. Although the company has multiple satellites in orbit capturing pictures of the entire world, they do not cover the entire globe simultaneously. Footage was not captured at the exact same time as the crash, which complicates the use of satellite footage for investigators.
Tomnod's Facebook page indicates several other times the platform was used for crowdsourced disaster investigations over the past few months; other cases included flooding in Bolivia, 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. DigitalGlobe was previously featured on Co.Exist for their work predicting terrorist attacks.
It's easy to contribute to the Flight 370 search through Tomnod. The site's interface brings up randomly selected rectangles of satellite imagery from the coverage area in the Gulf of Thailand for viewers to browse and investigate. Using Tomnod, users can drag and drop icons representing various anomalies like oil slicks and life boats onto the map. Once a map has been tagged with an icon, members of Tomnod's team review and verify the information. All promising leads are then forwarded to authorities investigating the Flight 370 disappearance.