From Genghis Khan to Earthquakes

Tomnod is an innovative crowdsourcing group based in San Diego that was created in 2010 by Albert Yu-Min Lin and Luke Barrington. It is not linked with a university of larger agency however it does partner with other organizations frequently. Some of these include Amnesty International, Ushahidi, Digitial Globe, and SBTF.

Tomnod has six core staff members. All have PhDs in engineering and interestingly all express interest in the outdoors and adventure activities. The staff members are Shay Har-Now, Luke Barrington, Nate Ricklin, Albert Yu-Min Lin, Daniel Barrington, and Allison Shefcyk. The Tomnod website presents each one’s profile in a very informal manner, giving each one a nickname like “The Brains” or “The Boss. “ I get the impression this is a very close nit and relaxed, yet extremely intelligent and hard-working group. Nothing the group does however is possible without the help of 100s of volunteers. It is through the work of volunteers that data and information is gathered in the field.

Overall, Tomnod is all about crowdsourcing and engaging the participation of thousands of people online to achieve a specific goal. The main mission of the group is to make sense of large amounts of data and making it easily understandable and accessible to the public. One way they keep the public up to date about their current projects is through their online blogs. Essentially, they specialize in data improvement, machine learning/ automated computation, and human generated analysis. Their skills have been utilized in many different areas from political elections to disaster responses.

Tomnod’s recent and current projects span a wide variety of unique issues. One of their initial projects partnered with National Geographic to use remote sensing and over 10,000 imagery contributions from the general public to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. Tomnod promotes the idea that anyone can help make this monumental discovery by joining the crowd. Tomnod has also had a significant presence in New Zealand after the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011. It created a disaster mapper that has provided satellite imagery to compare images from before and after the earthquake. This has been helpful in determining exactly where damage exists and what buildings and infrastructure needs repair. Tomnod has even been using its crowdsourcing abilities to monitor human rights violations in Somalia and Syria. These were pilot projects created in partnership with Amnesty International in order to determine the power of social computation in fighting for human rights.

I really love the work that Tomnod is doing, primarily because of the unique way it is using its resources and skills. It’s great to see that they are utilizing it for development and disaster related purposes but also using their skills to track the Republican election primaries or searching for a lost tomb. Everything they create is also extremely easy to understand. I tried their disaster mapper myself and was easily able to see the damage that still exists in New Zealand. This ability makes me feel all the more connected to a place on the other side of the world, a direct representation of the part Tomnod’s work is playing into globalization. Although globalization can be characterized as a negative, Tomnod’s work is undeniably brining a positive light to the term.

Here, here, and here are some additional resources on Tomnod.

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