Category Archives: Satellite Imagery

Remote Sensing Satellites and the Regulation of Violence in Areas of Limited Statehood

In 1985, American intelligence analyst Samuel Loring Morison was charged with espionage after leaking this satellite image of a Soviet shipyard:

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And here’s a satellite image of the same shipyard today, free & publicly available via Google Earth:

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Thus begins colleague Steven Livingston’s intriguing new study entitled Remote Sensing Satellites and the Regulation of Violence in Areas of Limited Statehood. “These two images illustrate the extraordinary changes in remote sensing that have occurred since 2000, the year the first high-resolution, commercially owned and operated satellite images became available. Images that were once shrouded in state secrecy are now available to anyone possessing a computer and internet connection, sometimes even at no cost.”

Steven “considers the implications of this development for governance in areas of limited statehood.” In other words, he “explores digitally enabled collective action in areas of limited statehood” in order to answer the following question: how might remote sensing “strengthen the efforts to hold those responsible for egregious acts of violence against civil populations to greater account”?

Areas of Limited Statehood

An area of limited statehood is a “place, policy arena, or period of time when the governance capacity of the state is unrealized or faltering.” To this end, “Governance can be defined as initiatives intended to provide public goods and to create and enforce binding rules.” I find it fascinating that Steven treats “governance as an analog to collective action, a term more common to political economics.” Using the lens of limited statehood also “disentangles governance from government (or the state). This is especially important to the discussion of remote sensing satellites and their role in mitigating some of the harsher effects of limited statehood.”

In sum, “rather than a dichotomous variable, as references to failed states imply, state governance capacity is more accurately conceptualized as running along a continuum: from failed states at one end to fully consolidated states at the other.” To this end, “What might appear to be a fully consolidated state according to gross indicators might in fact be a quite limited state according to sectorial, social or even spatial grounds.” This is also true of the Global North. Take natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, for example. Disasters can, and do, “degrade the governance capacity of a state in the affected region.”

Now, the term “limited governance” does not imply the total lack of governance. “Governance might instead come from alternative sources,” writes Steven, such as NGOs, clans and even gangs. “Most often, governance is provided by a mix of modalities […],” which is “particularly important when considering the role of technology as a sort of governance force multiplier.” Evidently, “Leveraging technology lowers the organizational burden historically associated with the provisioning of public goods. By lowering communication and collaboration costs, information and communication technology facilitates organizing without formal organizations, such as states.” To this end, “Rather than building organizations to achieve a public good, digital technologies are used to organize collective actions intended to provide a public good, even in the absence of the state. It involves a shift from a noun (organizations) to a verb (organizing).”

Remote Sensing Satellites

Some covert satellites are hard to keep out of the public eye. “The low-earth orbit and size of government satellites make them fairly easy to spot, a fact that has created a hobby: satellite tracking.” These hobbyists are able to track govern-ment satellites and to calculate their orbits; thus deducing certain features and even purpose of said satellites. What is less well known, however, are the “capabilities of the sensors or camera carried onboard.”

The three important metrics associated with remote sensing satellites are spatial resolution, spectral resolution and temporal resolution. Please see Steven’s study (pages 12-14) for a detailed description of each. “In short, ‘seeing’ involves much more data than is typically associated in popular imagination with satellite images.” Furthermore, “Spatial resolution alone may not matter as much as other technical characteristics. What is analytically possible with 30-centimeter resolution imagery may not outweigh what can be accomplished with a one-meter spatial resolution satellite with a high temporal resolution.” (Steven also provides an informative summary on the emergence of the commercial remote sensing sector including micro-satellites in pages 14-18).

The Regulation of Violence

Can non-state actors use ICTs to “alter the behavior of state actors who have or are using force […] to violate broadly recognized norms”? Clearly one element of this question relates to the possibility of verifying such abuse (although this in no way implies that state behaviors will change as a consequence). “Where the state is too weak [or unwilling] to hold its own security forces to account and to monitor, investigate, and verify the nature of their conduct, nonstate actors fill at least some of the void. Nonstate actors offer a functional equivalency to a consolidated state’s oversight functions.”

Steven highlights a number of projects that seek to use satellite imagery for the above stated purposes. These include projects by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, AAAS and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) Satellite Sentinel Project. These projects demonstrate that monitoring & verifying state-sanctioned violence is certainly feasible via satellite imagery. I noted as much here and here back in 2008. And I’ve had several conversations over the years with colleagues at Amnesty, AAAS and the Sentinel Project on the impact of their work on state behavior. There are reasons to be optimistic even if many (most?) of these reasons cannot be made public.

There are also reasons to be concerned as per recent conversations I’ve had with Harvard’s Sentinel Project. The latter readily admit that behavior change in no way implies that said change is a positive one, i.e., the cessation of violence. States who learn of projects that use remote sensing satellites to document the mass atrocities they are committing (or complicit in) may accelerate their slaughter and/or change strategies by taking more covert measures.

There is of course the possibility of positive behavior change; one in which “Transnational Advocacy Networks” are able to “mobilize information strategic-ally to help create new issues and categories and to persuade, pressure, and gain leverage over much more powerful organizations and governments […],” who subsequently change their behaviors to align with international norms and practices. While fraught with the conundrums of “proving” direct causality, the conversations I’ve had with some of the leading advocacy networks engaged in these networks leave me hopeful.

In conclusion

Satellite imagery—once the sole purview of intelligence agencies—is increasingly accessible to these advocacy networks who can use said imagery to map unregulated state violence. To this end, “States no longer enjoy a mono-poly on the synoptic view of earth from space. […] Nonstate actors, from corporations to nongovernmental organizations and community groups now have access to the means of ordering a disorderly world on their own terms.”

The extent to which this loss of monopoly is positively affecting state behavior is unclear (or not fully public). Either way, and while obvious, transparency in no way implies accountability. Documenting state atrocities does not automatically end or prevent them—a point clearly lost on a number of conflict early warning “experts” who overlooked this issue in the 1990s and 2000s. Prevention is political; and political will is not an icon on the computer screen that one can turn on with a double-click of the mouse.

In addition to the above, Steven and I have also been exploring the question of UAVs within the context of limited statehood and the regulation of violence for a future book we’re hoping to co-author. While NGOs and community groups are in no position to operate or own a satellite (typical price tag is $300 million), they can absolutely own and operate a $500 UAV. Just in the past few months, I’ve had 3 major human rights organization contact me for guidance on the use of UAVs for human rights monitoring. How all this eventually plays out will hopefully feature in our future book.

Video: Digital Humanitarians & Next Generation Humanitarian Technology

How do international humanitarian organizations make sense of the “Big Data” generated during major disasters? They turn to Digital Humanitarians who craft and leverage ingenious crowdsourcing solutions with trail-blazing insights from artificial intelligence to make sense of vast volumes of social media, satellite imagery and even UAV/aerial imagery. They also use these “Big Data” solutions to verify user-generated content and counter rumors during disasters. The talk below explains how Digital Humanitarians do this and how their next generation humanitarian technologies work.

Many thanks to TTI/Vanguard for having invited me to speak. Lots more on Digital Humanitarians in my new book of the same title.

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Videos of my TEDx talks and the talks I’ve given at the White House, PopTech, Where 2.0, National Geographic, etc., are all available here.

Reflections on Digital Humanitarians – The Book

In January 2014, I wrote this blog post announcing my intention to write a book on Digital Humanitarians. Well, it’s done! And launches this week. The book has already been endorsed by scholars at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, etc; by practitioners at the United Nations, World Bank, Red Cross, USAID, DfID, etc; and by others including Twitter and National Geographic. These and many more endorsements are available here. Brief summaries of each book chapter are available here; and the short video below provides an excellent overview of the topics covered in the book. Together, these overviews make it clear that this book is directly relevant to many other fields including journalism, human rights, development, activism, business management, computing, ethics, social science, data science, etc. In short, the lessons that digital humanitarians have learned (often the hard way) over the years and the important insights they have gained are directly applicable to fields well beyond the humanitarian space. To this end, Digital Humanitarians is written in a “narrative and conversational style” rather than with dense, technical language.

The story of digital humanitarians is a multifaceted one. Theirs is not just a story about using new technologies to make sense of “Big Data”. For the most part, digital humanitarians are volunteers; volunteers from all walks of life and who occupy every time zone. Many are very tech-savvy and pull all-nighters, but most simply want to make a difference using the few minutes they have with the digital technologies already at their fingertips. Digital humanitarians also include pro-democracy activists who live in countries ruled by tyrants. This story is thus also about hope and humanity; about how technology can extend our humanity during crises. To be sure, if no one cared, if no one felt compelled to help others in need, or to change the status quo, then no one even would bother to use these new, next generation humanitarian technologies in the first place.

I believe this explains why Professor Leysia Palen included the following in her very kind review of my book: “I dare you to read this book and not have both your heart and mind opened.” As I reflected to my editor while in the midst of book writing, an alternative tag line for the title could very well be “How Big Data and Big Hearts are Changing the Face of Humanitarian Response.” It is personally and deeply important to me that the media, would-be volunteers  and others also understand that the digital humanitarians story is not a romanticized story about a few “lone heroes” who accomplish the impossible thanks to their super human technical powers. There are thousands upon thousands of largely anonymous digital volunteers from all around the world who make this story possible. And while we may not know all their names, we certainly do know about their tireless collective action efforts—they mobilize online from all corners of our Blue Planet to support humanitarian efforts. My book explains how these digital volunteers do this, and yes, how you can too.

Digital humanitarians also include a small (but growing) number of forward-thinking professionals from large and well-known humanitarian organizations. After the tragic, nightmarish earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, these seasoned and open-minded humanitarians quickly realized that making sense of “Big Data” during future disasters would require new thinking, new risk-taking, new partnerships, and next generation humanitarian technologies. This story thus includes the invaluable contributions of those change-agents and explains how these few individuals are enabling innovation within the large bureaucracies they work in. The story would thus be incomplete without these individuals; without their appetite for risk-taking, their strategic understanding of how to change (and at times circumvent) established systems from the inside to make their organizations still relevant in a hyper-connected world. This may explain why Tarun Sarwal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva included these words (of warning) in his kind review: “For anyone in the Humanitarian sector — ignore this book at your peril.”

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Today, this growing, cross-disciplinary community of digital humanitarians are crafting and leveraging ingenious crowdsourcing solutions with trail-blazing insights from advanced computing and artificial intelligence in order to make sense of “Big Data” generated during disasters. In virtually real-time, these new solutions (many still in early prototype stages) enable digital volunteers to make sense of vast volumes of social media, SMS and imagery captured from satellites & UAVs to support relief efforts worldwide.

All of this obviously comes with a great many challenges. I certainly don’t shy away from these in the book (despite my being an eternal optimist : ). As Ethan Zuckerman from MIT very kindly wrote in his review of the book,

“[Patrick] is also a careful scholar who thinks deeply about the limits and potential dangers of data-centric approaches. His book offers both inspiration for those around the world who want to improve our disaster response and a set of fertile challenges to ensure we use data wisely and ethically.”

Digital humanitarians are not perfect, they’re human, they make mistakes, they fail; innovation, after all, takes experimenting, risk-taking and failing. But most importantly, these digital pioneers learn, innovate and over time make fewer mistakes. In sum, this book charts the sudden and spectacular rise of these digital humanitarians and their next generation technologies by sharing their remarkable, real-life stories and the many lessons they have learned and hurdles both cleared & still standing. In essence, this book highlights how their humanity coupled with innovative solutions to “Big Data” is changing humanitarian response forever. Digital Humanitarians will make you think differently about what it means to be humanitarian and will invite you to join the journey online. And that is what it’s ultimately all about—action, responsible & effective action.

Why did I write this book? The main reason may perhaps come as a surprise—one word: hope. In a world seemingly overrun by heart-wrenching headlines and daily reminders from the news and social media about all the ugly and cruel ways that technologies are being used to spy on entire populations, to harass, oppress, target and kill each other, I felt the pressing need to share a different narrative; a narrative about how selfless volunteers from all walks of life, from all ages, nationalities, creeds use digital technologies to help complete strangers on the other side of the planet. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing this digital good-will first hand and repeatedly over the years. This goodwill is what continues to restore my faith in humanity and what gives me hope, even when things are tough and not going well. And so, I wrote Digital Humanitarians first and fore-most to share this hope more widely. We each have agency and we can change the world for the better. I’ve seen this and witnessed the impact first hand. So if readers come away with a renewed sense of hope and agency after reading the book, I will have achieved my main objective.

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For updates on events, talks, trainings, webinars, etc, please click here. I’ll be organizing a Google Hangout on March 5th for readers who wish to discuss the book in more depth and/or follow up with any questions or ideas. If you’d like additional information on this and future Hangouts, please click on the previous link. If you wish to join ongoing conversations online, feel free to do so with the FB & Twitter hashtag #DigitalJedis. If you’d like to set up a book talk and/or co-organize a training at your organization, university, school, etc., then do get in touch. If you wish to give a talk on the book yourself, then let me know and I’d be happy to share my slides. And if you come across interesting examples of digital humanitarians in action, then please consider sharing these with other readers and myself by using the #DigitalJedis hashtag and/or by sending me an email so I can include your observation in my monthly newsletter and future blog posts. I also welcome guest blog posts on iRevolutions.

Naturally, this book would never have existed were it for digital humanitarians volunteering their time—day and night—during major disasters across the world. This book would also not have seen the light of day without the thoughtful guidance and support I received from these mentors, colleagues, friends and my family. I am thus deeply and profoundly grateful for their spirit, inspiration and friendship. Onwards!

MicroMappers: Towards Next Generation Humanitarian Technology

The MicroMappers platform has come a long way and still has a ways to go. Our vision for MicroMappers is simple: combine human computing (smart crowd-sourcing) with machine computing (artificial intelligence) to filter, fuse and map a variety of different data types such as text, photo, video and satellite/aerial imagery. To do this, we have created a collection of “Clickers” for MicroMappers. Clickers are simply web-based crowdsourcing apps used to make sense of “Big Data”. The “Text Cicker” is used to filter tweets & SMS’s; “Photo Clicker” to filter photos; “Video Clicker” to filter videos and yes the Satellite & Aerial Clickers to filter both satellite and aerial imagery. These are the Data Clickers. We also have a collection of Geo Clickers that digital volunteers use to geo-tag tweets, photos and videos filtered by the Data Clickers. Note that these Geo Clickers auto-matically display the results of the crowdsourced geo-tagging on our MicroMaps like the one below.

MM Ruby Tweet Map

Thanks to our Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine AIDR, the MicroMappers “Text Clicker” already combines human and machine computing. This means that tweets and text messages can be automatically filtered (classified) after some initial crowdsourced filtering. The filtered tweets are then pushed to the Geo Clickers for geo-tagging purposes. We want to do the same (semi-automation) for photos posted to social media as well as videos; although this is still a very active area of research and development in the field of computer vision.

So we are prioritizing our next hybrid human-machine computing efforts on aerial imagery instead. Just like the “Text Clicker” above, we want to semi-automate feature detection in aerial imagery by adding an AI engine to the “Aerial Clicker”. We’ve just starting to explore this with computer vision experts in Switzerland and Canada. Another development we’re eyeing vis-a-vis UAVs is live video streaming. To be sure, UAVs will increasingly be transmitting live video feeds directly to the web. This means we may eventually need to develop a “Streaming Clicker”, which would in some respects resemble our existing “Video Clicker” except that the video would be broadcasting live rather than play back from YouTube, for example. The “Streaming Clicker” is for later, however, or at least until a prospective partner organization approaches us with an immediate and compelling social innovation use-case.

In the meantime, my team & I at QCRI will continue to improve our maps (data visualizations) along with the human computing component of the Clickers. The MicroMappers smartphone apps, for example, need more work. We also need to find partners to help us develop apps for tablets like the iPad. In addition, we’re hoping to create a “Translate Clicker” with Translators Without Borders (TWB). The purpose of this Clicker would be to rapidly crowdsource the translation of tweets, text messages, etc. This could open up rather interesting possibilities for machine translation, which is certainly an exciting prospect.

MM All Map

Ultimately, we want to have one and only one map to display the data filtered via the Data and Geo Clickers. This map, using (Humanitarian) OpenStreetMap as a base layer, would display filtered tweets, SMS’s, photos, videos and relevant features from satellite and UAV imagery. Each data type would simply be a different layer on this fused “Meta-Data Crisis Map”; and end-users would simply turn individual layers on and off as needed. Note also the mainstream news feeds (CNN and BBC) depicted in the above image. We’re working with our partners at UN/OCHA, GDELT & SBTF to create a “3W Clicker” to complement our MicroMap. As noted in my forthcoming book, GDELT is the ultimate source of data for the world’s digitized news media. The 3Ws refers to Who, What, Where; an important spreadsheet that OCHA puts together and maintains in the aftermath of major disasters to support coordination efforts.

In response to Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines, Andrej Verity (OCHA) and I collaborated with Kalev Leetaru from GDELT to explore how the MicroMappers “3W Clicker” might work. The result is the Google Spreadsheet below (click to enlarge) that is automatically updated every 15 minutes with the latest news reports that refer to one or more humanitarian organizations in the Philippines. GDELT includes the original URL of the news article as well as the list of humanitarian organizations referenced in the article. In addition, GDELT automatically identifies the locations referred to in the articles, key words (tags) and the date of the news article. The spreadsheet below is already live and working. So all we need now is the “3W Clicker” to crowdsource the “What”.

MM GDELT output

The first version of the mock-up we’ve created for the “3W Clicker” is displayed below. Digital volunteers are presented with an interface that includes an news article with the names of humanitarian organizations highlighted in red for easy reference. GDELT auto-populates the URL, the organization name (or names if there are more than one) and the location. Note that both the “Who” & “Where” information can be edited directly by the volunteer incase GDELT’s automated algorithm gets those wrong. The main role of digital volunteers, however, would simply be to identify the “What” by quickly skimming the article.

MM 3W Clicker v2

The output of the “3W Clicker” would simply be another MicroMap layer. As per Andrej’s suggestion, the resulting data could also be automatically pushed to another Google Spreadsheet in HXL format. We’re excited about the possibilities and plan to move forward on this sooner rather than later. In addition to GDELT, pulling in feeds from CrisisNET may be worth exploring. I’m also really keen on exploring ways to link up with the Global Disaster Alert & Coordination System (GDACS) as well as GeoFeedia.

In the meantime, we’re hoping to pilot our “Satellite Clicker” thanks to recent conversations with Planet Labs and SkyBox Imaging. Overlaying user-generated content such as tweets and images on top of both satellite and aerial imagery can go a long way to helping verify (“ground truth”) social media during disasters and other events. This is evidenced by recent empirical studies such as this one in Germany and this one in the US. On this note, as my QCRI colleague Heather Leson recently pointed out, the above vision for MicroMappers is still missing one important data feed; namely sensors—the Internet of Things. She is absolutely spot on, so we’ll be sure to look for potential pilot projects that would allow us to explore this new data source within MicroMappers.

The above vision is a tad ambitious (understatement). We really can’t do this alone. To this end, please do get in touch if you’re interested in joining the team and getting MicroMappers to the next level. Note that MicroMappers is free and open source and in no way limited to disaster response applications. Indeed, we recently used the Aerial Clicker for this wildlife protection project in Namibia. This explains why our friends over at National Geographic have also expressed an interest in potentially piloting the MicroMappers platform for some of their projects. And of course, one need not use all the Clickers for a project, simply the one(s) that make sense. Another advantage of MicroMappers is that the Clickers (and maps) can be deployed very rapidly (since the platform was initially developed for rapid disaster response purposes). In any event, if you’d like to pilot the platform, then do get in touch.

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See also: Digital Humanitarians – The Book

Digital Jedis: There Has Been An Awakening…

The Planetary Response Network: Using Citizen Science and Next Generation Satellites to Accelerate Disaster Damage Assessments

Note: The Planetary Response Network was formerly called Zoomanitarians

The Planetary Response Network (PRN) has been in the works for well over a year, so we’re excited to be going fully public for the first time. PRN a joint initiative between Zooniverse (Brook Simmons), Planet Labs (Alex Bakir) and myself at QCRI. The purpose of Zoomanitarians is to accelerate disaster damage assessments by leveraging Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites and Zooniverse’s highly scalable microtasking platform. As I noted in this earlier post, digital volunteers from Zooniverse tagged well over 2 million satellite images (of Mars, below) in just 48 hours. So why not invite Zooniverse volunteers to tag millions of images taken by Planet Labs following major disasters (on Earth) to help humanitarians accelerate their damage assessments?

Zooniverse Planet 4

That was the question I posed to Brooke and Alex in early 2013. “Why not indeed?” was our collective answer. So we reached out to several knowledgeable colleagues of mine including Kate Chapman from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and Lars Bromley from UNOSAT for their feedback and guidance on the idea.

We’ll be able to launch our first pilot project later this year thanks to Kate who kindly provided us with very high-resolution UAV/aerial imagery of downtown Tacloban in the Philippines. Why do we want said imagery when the plan is to use Planet Labs imagery? Because Planet Labs imagery is currently available at 3-5 meter resolution so we’ll be “degrading” the resolution of the aerial imagery to determine just what level and type of damage can be captured at various resolutions as compared to the imagery from Planet Labs. The pilot project will therefore serve to (1) customize and test The Planetary Response Network’s microtasking platform and (2) determine what level of detail can be captured at various resolutions.

PlanetLabs

We’ll then spend the remainder of the year improving the platform based on the results of the pilot project during which time I will continue to seek input from humanitarian colleagues. Zooniverse’s microtasking platform has already been stress-tested extensively over the years, which is one reason why I approached Zooniverse last year. The other reason is that they have over 1 million digital volunteers on their list-serve. Couple this with Planet Labs’ unique constellation of 28 satellites, and you’ve got the potential for near real-time satellite imagery analysis for disaster response. Our plan is to produce “heat maps” based on the results and to share shape files as well for overlay on other maps.

It took imagery analysts well over 48 hours to acquire and analyze satellite imagery following Typhoon Yolanda. While Planet Labs imagery is not (yet) available at high-resolutions, our hope is that PRN will be able to acquire and analyze relevant imagery within 12-24 hours of a request. Several colleagues have confirmed to me that the results of this rapid analysis will also prove invaluable for subsequent, higher-resolution satellite imagery acquisition and analysis. On a related note, I hope that our rapid satellite-based damage assessments will also serve as a triangulation mechanism (ground-truthing) for the rapid social-media-driven damage assessments carried out using the Artificial Intelligence for Disaster Response (AIDR) platform & MicroMappers.

While much work certainly remains, and while The Planetary Response Network is still in the early phases of research and development, I’m nevertheless excited and optimistic about the potential impact—as are my colleagues Brooke and Alex. We’ll be announcing the date of the pilot later this summer, so stay tuned for updates!

Results of the Crowdsourced Search for Malaysia Flight 370 (Updated)

Update: More than 3 million volunteers thus far have joined the crowdsourcing efforts to locate the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. These digital volunteers have viewed over a quarter-of-a-billion micro-maps and have tagged almost 3 million features in these satellite maps. Source of update.

Malaysian authorities have now gone on record to confirm that Flight 370 was hijacked, which reportedly explains why contact with the passenger jet abruptly ceased a week ago. The Search & Rescue operations now involve 13 countries around the world and over 100 ships, helicopters and airplanes. The costs of this massive operation must easily be running into the millions of dollars.

FlightSaR

Meanwhile, a free crowdsourcing platform once used by digital volunteers to search for Genghis Khan’s Tomb and displaced populations in Somalia (video below) has been deployed to search high-resolution satellite imagery for signs of the missing airliner. This is not the first time that crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis has been used to find a missing plane but this is certainly the highest profile operation yet, which may explain why the crowdsourcing platform used for the search (Tomnod) reportedly crashed for over a dozen of hours since the online search began. (Note that Zooniverse can easily handle this level of traffic). Click on the video below to learn more about the crowdsourced search for Genghis Khan and displaced peoples in Somalia.

NatGeoVideo

Having current, high-resolution satellite imagery is almost as good as having your own helicopter. So the digital version of these search operations includes tens of thousands of digital helicopters, whose virtual pilots are covering over 2,000 square miles of Thailand’s Gulf right from their own computers. They’re doing this entirely for free, around the clock and across multiple time zones. This is what Digital Humanitarians have been doing ever since the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, and most recently in response to Typhoon Yolanda.

Tomnod has just released the top results of the crowdsourced digital search efforts, which are displayed in the short video below. Like other microtasking platforms, Tomnod uses triangulation to calculate areas of greatest consensus by the crowd. This is explained further here. Note: The example shown in the video is NOT a picture of Flight 370 but perhaps of an airborne Search & Rescue plane.

While looking for evidence of the missing airliner is like looking for the proverbial needle in a massive stack of satellite images, perhaps the biggest value-added of this digital search lays in identifying where the aircraft is most definitely not located—that is, approaching this crowdsourced operation as a process of elimination. Professional imagery analysts can very easily and quickly review images tagged by the crowd, even if they are mistakenly tagged as depicting wreckage. In other words, the crowd can provide the first level filter so that expert analysts don’t waste their time looking at thousands of images of bare oceans. Basically, if the mandate is to leave no stone unturned, then the crowd can do that very well.

In sum, crowdsourcing can reduce the signal to noise ratio so that experts can focus more narrowly on analyzing the potential signals. This process may not be perfect just yet but it can be refined and improved. (Note that professionals also get it wrong, like Chinese analysts did with this satellite image of the supposed Malaysian airliner).

If these digital efforts continue and Flight 370 has indeed been hijacked, then this will certainly be the first time that crowdsourced satellite imagery analysis is used to find a hijacked aircraft. The latest satellite imagery uploaded by Tomnod is no longer focused on bodies of water but rather land. The blue strips below (left) is the area that the new satellite imagery covers.

Tomnod New Imagery 2

Some important questions will need to be addressed if this operation is indeed extended. What if the hijackers make contact and order the cessation of all offline and online Search & Rescue operations? Would volunteers be considered “digital combatants,” potentially embroiled in political conflict in which the lives of 227 hostages are at stake?

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Note: The Google Earth containing the top results of the search is available here.

See also: Analyzing Tweets on Malaysia Flight #MH370 [link]