Tag Archives: DigitalGlobe

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.


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.


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?


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

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

Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Tagging to Support UNHCR in Somalia

The Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF) recently launched a new team called the Satellite Imagery Team. This team has been activated twice within the past few months. The first was to carry out this trial run in Somalia and the second was in partnership with AI-USA for this human rights project in Syria. We’re now back in Somalia thanks to a new and promising partnership with UNHCR, DigitalGlobe, Tomnod, SBTF and Ushahidi.

The purpose of this joint project is to crowdsource the geolocation of shelters in Somalia’s Afgooye corridor. This resembles our first trial run initiative only this time we have developed formal and more specialized rule-set and feature-key in direct collaboration with our colleagues at UNHCR. As noted in this document, “Because access to the ground is difficult in Somalia, it is hard to know how many people, exactly, are affected and in what areas. By using satellite imagery to identify different types of housing/shelters, etc., we can make a better and more rapid population estimate of the number of people that live in these shelters. These estimates are important for logistics and planning purposes but are also important for understanding how the displaced population is moving and changing over time.” Hence the purpose of this project.

We’ll be tagging three different types of shelters: (1) Large permanent structures; (2) Temporary structures with a metal roof; and (3) Temporary shelters without a metal roof. Each of these shelter types is described in more details in the rule-set along with real satellite imagery examples—the feature key. The rule-set describes the shape, color, tone and clustering of the different shelter types. As per previous SBTF Satellite Team deployments, we will be using Tomnod’s excellent microtasking platform for satellite imagery analysis.

Over 100 members of the SBTF have joined the Satellite Team to support this project. One member of this team, Jamon, is an associate lecturer in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He teaches on a broad array of technologies and applications of Geographic Information Science, including GPS and  satellite imagery analysis. He got in touch today to propose offering this project for class credit to his 36 undergraduate students who he will supervise during the exercise.

In addition, my colleague and fellow Satellite Team coordinator at the SBTF, has recruited many graduate students who are members of the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) to join the SBTF team on this project. The experience that these students bring to the team will be invaluable. Shadrock has also played a pivotal role in making this project happen: thanks to his extensive expertise in remote sensing and satellite imagery, he took the lead in developing the rule-set and feature-key in collaboration with UNHCR.

The project officially launches this Friday. The triangulated results will be pushed to a dedicated UNHCR Ushahidi map for review. This will allow UNCHR to add additional contextual data to the maps for further analysis. We also hope that our colleagues at the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) will run their automated shelter tagging algorithm on the satellite imagery for comparative analysis purposes. This will help us better understand the strengths and shortcomings of both approaches and more importantly provide us with insights on how to best improve each individually and in combination.

Microtasking Advocacy and Humanitarian Response in Somalia

I’ve been working on bridging the gap between the technology innovation sector and the humanitarian & human rights communities for years now. One area that holds great promise is the use of microtasking for advocacy and humanitarian response. So I’d like to share two projects I’m spearheading with the support of several key colleagues. I hope these pilot projects will further demonstrate the value of mainstreaming microtasking. Both initiatives are focused on Somalia.

The first pilot project plans to leverage Souktel‘s large SMS subscriber base in Somalia to render local Somali voices and opinions more visibile in the mainstream media. This initiative combines the efforts of a Somali celebrity, members of the Somali Diaspora, a major international news organization, Ushahidi and CrowdFlower. In order to translate, categorize and geolocate incoming text messages, I reached out to my colleagues at CrowdFlower, a San Francisco-based company specializing in microtasking.

I had catalyzed a partnership with Crowdflower during the PakReport deploy-ment last year and wanted to repeat this successful collaboration for Somalia. To my delight, the team at Crowdflower was equally interested in contri-buting to this initiative. So we’ve started to customize a Crowdflower plugin for Somalia. This interface will allow members of the Somali Diaspora to use a web-based platform to translate, categorize and geolocate incoming SMS’s from the Horn of Africa. The text messages processed by the Diaspora will then be published on a public Ushahidi map.

Our international media partner will help promote this initiative and invite comments in response to the content shared via SMS. The media group will then select the most compelling replies and share these (via SMS) with the authors of the original text messages in Somalia.  The purpose of this project is to catalyze more media and world attention on Somalia, which is slowly slipping from the news. We hope that the content and resulting interaction will generate the kind of near real-time information that advocacy groups and the Diaspora can leverage in their lobbying efforts.

The second pilot project is a partnership between the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), UNHCR, DigitalGlobe and Tomnod. The purpose of this project, is to build on this earlier trial run and microtask the tagging of informal shelters in a certain region of the country to identify where IDPs are located and also esti-mate the total IDP population size. The microtasking part of this project is possible thanks to the Tomnod platform, which I’ve already blogged about in the context of this recent Syria project. The project will use a more specialized rule-set and feature-key developed with UNHCR to maximize data quality.

We are also partnering with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC) on this UNCHR project. The JRC team will run their automated shelter-detection algorithms on the same set of satellite images. The goal is to compare and triangulate crowdsource methods with automated approaches to satellite imagery analysis.

There are several advantages to using microtasking solutions for advocacy and humanitarian purposes. The first is that the tasks can easily be streamlined and distributed far and wide. Secondly, this approach to microtasking is highly scalable, rapid and easily modifiable. Finally, microtasking allows for quality control via triangulation, accountability and statistical analysis. For example, only when two volunteers translate an incoming text message from Somalia in a similar way does that text message get pushed to an Ushahidi map of local Somali voices. The same kind of triangulation can be applied to the categorization and geolocation of text messages, and indeed shelters in satellite imagery.

Microtasking is no silver bullet for advocacy and humanitarian response. But it is an important new tool in the tool box that can provide substantial support in times of crisis, especially when leveraged with other traditional approaches. I really hope the two projects described above take off. In the meantime, feel free to browse through my earlier blog posts below for further information on related applications of microtasking:

·  Combining Crowdsourced Satellite Imagery Analysis with Crisis Reporting
·  OpenStreetMap’s Microtasking Platform for Satellite Imagery Tracing
·  Crowdsourcing Satellite Imagery Analysis for Somalia
· Crowdsourcing the Analysis of Satellite Imagery for Disaster Response
· Wanted for Pakistan: A Turksourcing Plugin for Crisis Mapping
· Using Massive Multiplayer Games to Turksource Crisis Information
· From Netsourcing to Crowdsourcing to Turksourcing Crisis Information
· Using Mechanical Turk to Crowdsource Humanitarian Response