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Crowd sourcing a missing airliner, "Top Priority Search" according to President

A small boat, likely a fishing trawler of about 50 feet length followed by two smaller vessels off the western coast of Malaysia.
A small boat, likely a fishing trawler of about 50 feet length followed by two smaller vessels off the western coast of Malaysia.
Harry McClard from search website

Today President Obama called the search for Malaysia flight 370 "top priority" and he said that all resources of the United States are available to help with the search. That speech by President Obama will focus heightened activity on the search.

In addition to those official resources, some 3 million volunteers are studying hundreds of thousands of high resolution satellite images of the areas that may be the resting place of the missing airliner.

Malaysia flight MH370 went missing during the wee hours of Saturday March 8, 2014. Since then there has been an unlimited supply of theories ranging from simple and believable to conspiracy theory involving secret agents and any number of other nearly impossible theories. But, despite intense searching by over two dozen nations, the airplane and its 230 passengers are still missing nearly 2 weeks later.

Shortly after initial searches turned up nothing, DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite imaging company, offered its resources to volunteers who can search through high resolution satellite images and help narrow the search. Each image is reviewed by about 30 volunteers and they receive feedback on how many other searchers agree with their tags. Images with tags of debris are then further enhanced and studied by trained experts.

During the first days of the search, there were a few thousand volunteers but that soon expanded to over a million. The search has its own Facebook page, TOMNOD, and it also routinely tweets status on Twitter.

The images are chosen from DigitalGlobe's database of satellite images that were taken between March 9 and the current day. Each image is about the size of a city block, covering approximately 200 by 250 yards. On a normal sized computer monitor, 100 feet is about 1 inch and items such as cars or small boats are recognizable.

The efforts of the volunteers are considered "crowd sourcing" where many people take-on small jobs that in total make huge tasks manageable. Volunteering to search the images also has the advantage of giving the volunteer a sense that he or she is doing something that actually helps. By scanning the images and tagging only those with possible debris or items of interest, professional experts' time is not wasted scanning hundreds of thousands of images of "nothing".

DigitalGlobe's web site for participating in the search is TOMNOD. A volunteer only needs to register with their name and email address to start searching. The system assigns random "maps" within the search area and the volunteer can tag either debris, oil slick, rafts, or "other" items that may or may not be of interest. To date more than 600,000 items have been tagged by the volunteers for review by the experts.

Studying the images can be done at any time the volunteer has available and it can be quite boring when image after image shows only sea surface with nothing but water. But, when the occasional possible debris object shows-up, the adrenaline boost makes all the boring time worthwhile.

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