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Flight MH370: Satellite imaging site lets you join the hunt

Laid up at home with a broken toe, I've joined the online search party at Tomnod - a site that lets you comb through satellite images taken over the southern Indian Ocean, where possible Flight MH370 debris has been spotted (as I type, Saturday morning, the most recent images were uploaded five hours ago).

Tomnod was started by four University of California, San Diego (UCSD) alumni, then bought last year by commercial satellite company Digital Globe.

Digital Globe moved two of its birds to cover possible crash sites after MH370 went missing. It provided the two images of possible MH370 wreckage to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which were subsequently brought to the world's attention by Aussie PM Tony Abbott (although I haven't seen any reference to the objects being spotted by Tomnod crowdsourcers; Digital Globe also has its own team analysing images, as well as making them available to experts at other companies).

With a search area covering some 29,000 square kilometres, every pair of eyeballs helps in the grid by grid search (so far, around 750,000 images have been placed on Tomnod for various MH370 search areas).

If you see potential debris, you drop a pin on the satellite map.

Some will see potential wreckage in every peak of a wave. But Tomnod lets multiple people review the same grids. An algorithm alerts Digital Globe if multiple people have seen what they think is MH370 debris, and only the most promising sightings are forwarded to authorities.

Before MH370 went missing two weeks ago, Tomnod claims 10,000 users. Now the online search party numbers somewhere north of 2.3 million.

Digital Globe says Tomnod has had previous success. After Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in November 2013, a Tomnod crowdsourcing campaign saw 400,000 tags, identifying 38,000 damaged buildings and 101,000 damaged homes.

Ordinarily, Digital Globe charges for before and after images of events. This one's on the house (though nor does the publicity hurt when you're publicly traded - the satellite company has been on the New York Stock Exchange [NYSE:DGI] since 2009).

"Tomnod is a great example of a platform that combines a job that would overwhelm humans – slicing and distributing thousands and thousands of satellite images – with the kind of analysis that humans are still best at. Distributed computing has been going on for years - alien life search SETI@home is a great example) but adding subjective human analysis is what makes Tomnod especially interesting," former RNZAF pilot turned social media and advertising guru Vaughn Davis tells NBR.

"Of course, the challenge for the search authorities is to decide if the data it provides – or any other leads they receive – is worth pursuing, and that's another problem entirely."

Mr Davis - a one-time Y&R creative director who now heads his own agency, The Goat Farm - knows from his Air Force days that combing grid after grid of ocean is no easy task, whether it's virtual or real. Though to be fair, the real bit does sound trickier.

"I once spent time flying search and rescue missions in the RNZAF, and staring out the window at the sea for hours is hard. It's very easy to miss even quite large and brightly coloured objects," he says. 

"This was brought home to us on one mission when we didn't see a life raft until its occupants almost shot us down with a flare."

Tomnod jockeys are in no danger of getting shot down. But, yes, it's had to keep up the concentration. Maybe if I come back to it after a visit to the fridge ...

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Comments and questions

South of latitude 60S, means we ate effectively in the Southern Ocean
Meridians trnf to converge as you advance towards the Poles. I guess the major wreckage of the plane is at grid 131E,60.8 S.
Don't you ask me why.

South of latitude 60S, means we are effectively in the Southern Ocean
I guess the major wreckage of the plane is at grid 131E,60.8 S.
Don't you ask me why.

Misleading article. The current search is on the southern Indian ocean west of Perth, Australia. Tomnod does not present data for this area yet (12:00 Mon 24 March, AU EST), so you cannot join the current search. (Scroll down the tomnod page and you will see a map of where the data and the tomnod searches are conducted.)

Hi Robert,
Digital Globe has been uploading southern Indian Ocean pics to Tomnod since March 21 (see the company's Facebook update here).
It has made images from other areas available too, as it should. It's still not certain that the southern Indian Ocean is where the plane crashed.

I see the claim on Facebook, but I am going by the actual Tomnod website. They might have been uploading data, but they haven't made it available for us to search.