Online Search Party: the Novice Hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

On Thursday, our class had the distinct pleasure of hearing a guest lecture from Robert Banick, a GIS coordinator at the American Red Cross, by way of Skype. According to Robert’s twitter , his work entails “Making maps with stuff, responding to disasters and everything in between.” Needless to say, his perspective was rather interesting and presented us with a good idea of just how important Geographic Information Systems are, even though they are often overlooked.

While demand for mappers like Robert is often contingent on natural disasters, similar disciplines are being employed at this very moment in the hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. For those of you who don’t know much about the current situation, last Friday, a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China vanished from radar communication somewhere over either the Indian or Pacific Oceans. It is unclear where/when/why the plane went down. However, experts are now saying that the flight most likely veered West from its usual flight-path and put the plane down in the Indian Ocean. Without the recovery of the plane’s transponder, they can’t narrow the search area by very much. Therefore, there is a lot of ocean to cover in the search and that is very time- and energy-consuming.

However, experts are encouraging civilians, with no prior experience necessary, to join in the search. This crowdsourcing approach makes use of the website Tomnod.com. Tomnod is a software run by commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe, which repositioned two of its satellites over the area when this issue came about. Tomnod users are provided with a randomly chosen map from the search area and are told to drop a pin if they see signs of wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks or anything else that looks “suspicious.” An algorithm then finds where there is overlap in tags from people who tagged the same location, and the most notable areas are shared with authorities. Many people are calling this program a sort of “online search party.” While the results are so far inconclusive, that is no reason to be discouraged, as authorities are doing no better in solving the mystery. Like Robert Banick, Tomnod played an important role in the efforts around Typhoon Haiyan as well.

According to a Tomnod spokesperson, as of Thursday, every pixel had been looked at by human eyes at least 30 times. Although nothing significant has turned up yet, this is incredible progress in the search and saves authorities from a lot of redundancy. In short, this is a very current and real-life example of just how valuable GIS is in these situations. Without satellite imagery and a collective, off-site effort, it would take search and rescue teams weeks or months to cover the area that is covered by the online community in just a few days.

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