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The danger of crowdsourcing the search for Flight 370

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As the mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 continues, millions of people have turned to the internet to try to contribute to the search. Tomnod, the online crowdsourcing website that asks users to help identify objects in satellite imagery, has seen a huge bump in traffic from those looking to find the missing plane somewhere amongst the site’s collected photographs. Gideon Lichfield, an editor at Quartz, admits that there are benefit in having human eyes involved in the process.

“I think the issue is that you have a vast area of sea, and algorithms just are not good enough to reliably identify places where there is or is not debris. It’s very hard to tell what you’re actually looking for and program an algorithm to do that.”

According to Lichfield, the problem with attempting to find Flight 370 on a site like Tomnod is the sheer size of the search area. Tomnod has images available for about 24,000 square kilometers surrounding the missing flight, which is just a tiny fraction of the 7.7 million square kilometers that now comprise the expanded search area.

Lichfield also points out that the technology isn’t developed enough yet to be of any service – Until higher resolution photographs can be produced, the search for debris will continue to be very difficult. Still, he is impressed by the potential of the technology and the enthusiasm of its users.

“The benefits potentially are there. Tomnod says that something like 3 million people have used it. If that’s accurate, that’s actually a huge amount of processing power.”



*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the editor at Quartz. He is Gideon Lichfield. The text has been corrected.


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