Crowdsourcing Malaysia Flight 370

Earlier this week the Malaysian prime minister announced that Malaysia Flight 370 had been lost in the southern Indian Ocean.  Authorities from Australia, the U.S., China, and Malaysia are continuing to look for any clues that will lead them to the missing airliner, with efforts focusing on an area roughly the size of Alaska in the ocean southwest of the Australian city of Perth.

This event has gripped the world over the past several weeks, and if there is at all a silver lining, perhaps it can be seen in the outpouring of concern, sympathy, and desire from so many people to help in any way possible. Indeed, a remarkable story that has come out of this has to do with how technology has enabled literally millions of people to participate in the search for the missing airliner.

After the plane was lost and it was clear that finding it would require one of the most monumental search efforts ever, the satellite company Digital Globe uploaded countless images of the Indian Ocean onto a website called Tomnod.  Now anyone with access to the internet can view and scroll through these pictures, and if they spot anything they think might be related to the airliner – something that looks like a piece of debris from the plane – they can place a tag on it and record it in the system. If a lot of other people looking at the same image also tag the same thing, then the site’s administrators will conduct a more rigorous investigation of that image and relay the information to authorities. To be sure, if you go on Tomnod you’ll mostly be presented with pictures of open ocean with seemingly nothing special to see.  But in this case even nothing is something – if nobody puts a tag on an image, then it’s likely that the location doesn’t hold any leads and searchers on the water can apply their resources elsewhere.

Here is crowdsourcing at its most elegant and noble.  And not that long ago the notion of being able to help by going on the internet and tagging images would have been completely foreign.  But now, in a time when Twitter can spur revolutions, one can quickly see how something like Tomnod can make a profound difference.

And this isn’t at all the first time online maps have helped in humanitarian efforts.  In the 2011 Mumbai bombings, software engineers used the free, open-source platform Ushahidi to create a map of crisis areas that users contributed real time information to. And a site called Open Street Map, a mapping platform where users can label buildings, streets, parks, bike lanes, potholes, etc, was used in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to make updates of the disaster landscape.

In an interview on the PBS Newshour, crisis mapping pioneer Patrick Meier described the practice thus:

 “…stop this nonsense of we wait for the government to help, this fire truck approach to quickly putting out the fires.  Why don’t we become citizen firefighters ourselves? Humanitarian professionals…cannot be everywhere at the same time.  But the crowd can.”

To date, more than three million people have gone onto Tomnod to help in the search for Malaysia Flight 370.  If you’ve been wondering how you can contribute to the rescue, joining in on this most 21st century of methods is a very good place to start.



  1. JMI says:

    Really interesting Russell, thanks​!​

    I think that you would be really interested in some of the most cutting-edge research that I have come across explaining crowds, open innovation, and citizen science.​

    And you may also enjoy this blog about the same too:

    Powerful stuff, no?

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