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Using social media to scour the ‘haystack’: More than 3 million join search for Flight 370 from home

March 21, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
The overflow of information generated during a crisis like the Malaysian airliner gone missing can be just as paralyzing as the absence of information for those officials charged with searching. A crowdsourced search for Flight 370 harnesses the energy and time of the more than 3 million people who have volunteered to scour satellite imagery. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, the most useful lead in the search for the missing airliner has been those satellite images of possible debris. But nothing has been confirmed yet. And even as the hunt continues, people around the globe are trying to do their share to help aid in the search by utilizing technology.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien has our report.

JENNY PETERSON, Tomnod User: It’s interesting because we don’t even know where the haystack is. It could be here, it could be here, it could be here. And so there’s all these different places to look.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is what spare time looks like for Jenny Peterson these days.

JENNY PETERSON: It makes it seem like a game. And for being a former gamer, it’s almost like you’re on a quest.

MILES O’BRIEN: She is on a quest to find that missing Malaysian airliner, without ever leaving her home in the Washington, D.C., area.

JENNY PETERSON: People have also found whales. I found a whale. I don’t want to say it’s fun, but it is kind of fun, to get new pictures every day, because you don’t know what will be there. You just want to keep going and uncover the whole picture. It’s like putting together a puzzle.

MILES O’BRIEN: She is one of more than three million people who have volunteered their time to pore over satellite imagery of the search areas to see if there is anything unusual, any sign of the missing Boeing 777.

JENNY PETERSON: You want to be able to do something, but you can’t, because you’re not in the line of work, you’re across the world, you have family or whatever time. You can’t just up and leave and volunteer for the Red Cross. This is something that we can do.

MILES O’BRIEN: Jenny is searching on the Tomnod site run by DigitalGlobe. This is the company that released these images of debris in the Indian Ocean that are the current focus of the search, although they were not the fruits of the crowdsourcing campaign.

The Colorado company acquires and sells satellite imagery captured by a fleet of five satellites in polar orbits. When they pass over the region, those satellites, the most powerful available outside the classified world, are now focused on the huge area where they are searching for the missing airplane. They release the images on the Web site as quickly as they can, so the crowd can use its many hands to make light work.

LUKE BARRINGTON, DigitalGlobe: So far, we have received millions of tags from millions of users. Anything you can use satellite imagery for, crowdsourcing just makes it better.

MILES O’BRIEN: Luke Barrington is senior manager at geospatial big data at DigitalGlobe. He explains how the search works.

LUKE BARRINGTON: If you see anything interesting, if you think that it might be evidence of the crash or wreckage, or a life raft or an oil slick, or anything that could be useful, you simply click on it in your Web browser, and that tag gets recorded.

And what we find is, if you agree with 10 or 100 other people who have all independently seen that same location in their own Web browser, we start to identify these locations of consensus, and that’s where the real information comes out. That’s the wisdom of the crowd. That is crowdsourcing.

MILES O’BRIEN: Once the crowd agrees, the object in question is passed along to the real experts, who can determine if it is something that can be eliminated or an urgent destination for search-and-rescue aircraft. This crowdsourced search for the Malaysian airliner is just the latest manifestation of a powerful mix of space, computer and mobile technology coupled with social networking and the plain old human desire to help others in need.

PATRICK MEIER, Qatar Computing Research Institute: So we stop this nonsense of, we wait for the government to help, right, this fire truck approach to quickly putting out the fires. Why don’t we become citizen firefighters ourselves?

MILES O’BRIEN: Patrick Meier had that epiphany in the immediate wake of the Haiti earthquake of 2010. At the time working on an international affairs Ph.D. at Tufts University, he gathered some friends together in his living room to brainstorm ways to harness the information generated through social networking in the wake of the disaster, so that the humanitarian response will be more effective.

He is an early and leading advocate of the power of crowdsourced mapping.

PATRICK MEIER: Humanitarian professionals, paid professionals cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the crowd can. The crowd is always there, and the crowd has agency and they’re going to respond a lot faster.

You’re getting real-time information from sort of bird’s-eye view angle of who’s been affected, how badly and where. So a lot of humanitarian organizations, when you start talking to them about, hey, it’s like having your own helicopter, get it a bit more about what the added value might be.

MILES O’BRIEN: Even so, many humanitarian organizations were initially skeptical of Patrick and his band of enthusiastic, young, technologically savvy friends.

But, over time, the United Nations, the Red Cross and other large humanitarian organizations became true believers. The U.N. has created something called the Digital Humanitarian Network to help capture all the urgent tweets and texts, map them and try to connect the pleas for help with someone who can.

PATRICK MEIER: You have this “big data” — quote, unquote.

And what we’re all realizing, humanitarians, technologists alike, is the overflow of information generated during disasters can be as paralyzing to humanitarian response as the absence of information.

MILES O’BRIEN: And they enlist the crowd to analyze the data to make sense of all of the information being collected.

PATRICK MEIER: And the best way to visualize that is, you imagine a haystack that’s been put together in a square form, in a cube, right? And you basically then slice up the haystack in tiny little cubes, and every volunteer takes care of their little part of the haystack, and they all do it at the same time. That’s far more, far more efficient.

MILES O’BRIEN: The Digital Humanitarian Network was last mobilized in the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Maning Sambale was a volunteer with OpenStreetMap, an open source collaboration that is the Wikipedia of mapping.

MANING SAMBALE, OpenStreetMap Volunteer: We have asked people all over the world to trace features, map features, using satellite imagery.

MILES O’BRIEN: More than 1,600 volunteers provided 4.75 million updates to maps of the Tacloban region in less than a month. The volunteers looked at commercial satellite imagery captured after the storm by DigitalGlobe and traced out the footprints of homes and buildings to give relief workers maps that accurately reflected their devastated surroundings.

MANING SAMBALE: It’s the most comprehensive map they were able to see a week after the typhoon. There are other maps that’s there on the ground, but the difference is, we have this detail on the street level.

MILES O’BRIEN: But does it work? Does it really save lives? Relief workers in the Philippines or in Haiti would tell you yes. And at DigitalGlobe, they claim some success as well, although not always with a happy ending.

They instigated a crowdsourced search for two lost hikers in the Peruvian Andes in 2012. The crowd found tracks that led to the hikers, but, unfortunately, they were already dead. Most, crowdsourcing looks like this, frame after frame of nothing.

But even nothing can be something. The idea that there is value in documenting that a particular image has nothing special in it is what drives people like Jenny Peterson to keep looking at swathes of the Indian Ocean night after night.

JENNY PETERSON: Even if you can’t say, oh, I found something, finding nothing is still finding something. You know that you don’t have to expend resources to search in that area when you don’t see anything there.

And if I can help eliminate areas to search, and have — and let the — let them focus on the areas that are of interest, then, great, I’m good with looking at nothing, if that can help them out.

MILES O’BRIEN: While the cartographers of the crowd are constantly looking for ways to automate some of this painstaking work, this is one innovation that is enabled by technology, but driven by the most amazing computer of all: the one that sits behind our discerning eyes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Miles joins me now.

Miles, so, this goes on. It’s an amazing thing to think people all over the world are doing this.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, you can join right now if you to. You can be a part of the search.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — so, back to that search, yes, we know there’s bad weather, yes, we know it’s far away from Australia, where they’re looking, but why is this so hard?

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s hard because we just have a paucity of data.

It’s hard to imagine, in the 21st century, that an airliner, with all the electronics and all the technology we have, could go missing with so little — you would think at least a trail of electronic bread crumbs would exist. And it doesn’t.

And there’s any number of directions still that it could have flown. It’s still not guaranteed that it’s in that very spot. The wreckage that we saw in the piece and that’s been released by Australia might — that might just be debris, just plain old debris. There’s plenty of it in the ocean. We know about that.

To say it’s a needle in the haystack is an understatement, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the pings that this satellite picked up could have been from something else?

MILES O’BRIEN: It could be anything.

When you think about that giant hunk of plastic out in the Pacific, that gives you an idea of the kind of things it could be seeing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have talked, Miles, about the Malaysia Airlines decided not to invest in a communications system that would have sent more data back to home base. Explain what that is and why that would have made a difference.

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we’re all familiar of course with the radio transmissions that the crew engages in with the air traffic control.

But in addition, there are a couple of other channels of communication on a modern airliner. And one of them is this device called ACARS. It’s just a fancy acronym for kind of an almost fax machine meets e-mail kind of thing, where it spits out a little bit of information about the airplane on a routine basis.

In this case, it wasn’t as frequent as it was in the case of, if you will recall, the Air France flight that went missing over the Mid-Atlantic regions a few years ago. That had the upgraded ACARS with an app on it which actually provided much more information much more frequently, and aided the searches, because they knew better where it was and what the condition of that aircraft was.

In this case, they didn’t have it, and it really is a very inexpensive thing to add on. It’s like about $10 per flight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So a lot more information — we would have a lot more information?

MILES O’BRIEN: We would know much better where — what direction that plane was in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, final analysis, where is the greatest hope for finding out what happened?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, they’re going to need a little bit of luck, I think. They’re going to need some luck with the weather.

Let’s hope, frankly, that that — what those satellite saw were in fact pieces of the aircraft, because that gives them something to go on. Without any debris, there’s really very little chance that they will find this. It’s a big ocean and a big planet, and you just can’t go every in which way trying to find a potential debris pattern. So, let’s hope for some good weather, for starters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Miles O’Brien, thank you very much.

MILES O’BRIEN: All right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Great to have you with us.