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The power of social media and the crowd: help find Flight MH370

In a bid to help search for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, satellite company DigitalGlobe has decided to put its Tomnod crowdsourcing platform to work.

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Flight 370 went missing late last week en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and the Boeing 777 (the safest plane in the sky) was carrying over 200 people.

Based in Longmont, Colorado, USA, the company is a commercial vendor of space imagery and geospatial content, and operator of civilian remote sensing spacecraft.

The idea is gather up as many volunteers as possible to go through a collection of satellite images and try pin any possible clues or signs of a wreckage.

“This is a real needle-in-the-haystack problem, except the haystack is in the middle of the ocean,” Luke Barrington of senior manager for geospatial big data at DigitalGlobe told CNN affiliate KMGH. “I will ask you to mark anything that looks interesting, any signs of wreckage or life rafts.”

According to CNN the photos from DigitalGlobe’s satellite are taken over 600 kilometres above the Gulf of Thailand and can capture even the smallest detail. For the firm, the key is to get as many people as possible to help comb through the significant mass of ocean. This is where Tomnod comes in. Users can easily go to the platform and tag images with different key words, such as “plane wreckage” or “life raft” or in more indiscernible cases “other”.

“In many cases, the areas covered are so large, or the things we’re looking for are so hard to find, that without the help of hundreds of thousands of people online, we’d never be able to find them,” Barrington told CNN.

In the days since the plane mysteriously lost contact with ground control, social media has been busy with conversations around how this could happen and has been sending messages of solidarity for the families of the more than 200 people on board. According to social media analytics site, Topsy, there have been over 1.2-million mentions of MH370 on Twitter and that sort of activity is what DigitalGlobe is hoping to leverage.

In an interview with the Denver Post Barrington noted that the public were the forerunners asking the company to deploy Tomnod. In first few hours of going live, Tomnod’s map had 60 000 page views and a thousand tags that doubled 10 minutes later.

“The story here is much more about the search than it is about the response. This whole feeling of not knowing, the lack of information or ability to do anything, we have seen time and again, is why people want to get involved,” told the Denver Post.

“The people who come to Tomnod are very motivated to solve problems,” Barrington said. “I would say we will have up to 10 000 contributors on this one.”

The company has deployed its technology for such similar searches such as the Nina Ship which went missing off of the coast of Australia last year. It was also used during November’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, where more than 60 000 objects were tagged from satellite photos and the information was forwarded to emergency responders, according to the company.

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