Web 2.0 and the Search for Steve Fossett

By September 10, 2007

As both a technologist and a pilot, I am doubly interested in the recent turn of events in the search for millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett. For those not in tune with the events, Fossett took off in a small plane on Monday, September 3, to scout potential locations for his attempt at the land speed record in western Nevada. When his plane didn’t return a few hours later, search and rescue teams, including the Civil Air Patrol, converged on the area and a conventional search began.

Now, when I first heard the news that Fossett’s good friend and sometimes adventure partner Sir Richard Branson had called on Google to offer help via their mapping programs, I didn’t really give it much thought. Like most Web developers, I knew that Google itself didn’t own any satellites and [probably] didn’t have the capacity to access up-to-the-minute satellite imagery. However, what I did underestimate is Google’s ability to gain access to these things if needed. Over the weekend I got an invitation to participate in the search for Fossett via a special edition of an aviation newsletter I read. As I began to look into it, I was quickly amazed and impressed with what had transpired in a relatively short amount of time.

A few months ago I had read about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. I remember being intrigued with the simplicity of the idea and had even thought about some tasks that could utilize Amazon’s tool for the benefit of some of our clients. But when I read about how Google had leaned on one of their satellite image providers, DigitalGlobe, to obtain fresh images and then worked with Amazon to allow anyone on the Internet to search the images for signs of Fossett, I was really impressed.

Of course, distributed computing is nothing new. I can remember loading the distributed.net client on spare computers in hopes of cracking 3-DES or even SETI-at-home almost a decade ago. Some of my friends have even used their spare computer cycles for more lofty purposes like searching for a cure for cancer.

Maybe it’s the urgent nature of the search for a missing person, but somehow this seems the beginning of a new chapter in community involvement. We’ve seen public satellite imagery used to help in disasters and rescue efforts, from the tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and even 9/11. I have personally helped a friend try to determine the status of their beach house after Hurricane Ivan, but this new level of organization really elevates the whole thing.

At one point, as I was searching almost 900,000 square meters of Nevada desert I was watching the HITs tick off. At the rate they were going, 30,000,000 square meters or more were being searched each hour. It is truly an impressive thing.

So, if you have a few minutes to spare, or are just curious, check out the Amazon Mechanical Turk, and you too could pitch in to help find adventurer Steve Fossett.

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