A Different Kind of Online Search: Help Look for Steve Fossett


Today the blog’s about online search. Searching for aviator Steve Fossett that is.

If you’ve been incommunicado for some reason for the past two weeks, aviation pioneer and record holder Steve Fossett disappeared in the Nevada desert 11 days ago. He took off from a private landing strip in a small prop plane to look for a dry lake bed to use in an attempt to break the land speed record, and never came back.

There are now hundreds of people in aircraft and on the ground searching for him; but thanks to Sir Richard Branson, Amazon.com, and a satellite imagery company called GeoEye, there are also now thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people looking for him from the comfort of their computers, too.

Using satellite imagery from GeoEye and some very cool “artificial artificial” software hosted by Amazon.com, we can all search for Steve using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Once registered, you are fed a steady stream of satellite images of the Nevada wilderness, as fast as you want them, chopped up in easy to manage 278-foot by 278-foot chunks delivered as a 2.5 inch square photo on your desktop.

You’re also given a template positioned beside the image to search that shows the relative size of Steve’s airplane, so you know what to look for. Of course I’m also looking for skid marks, burned areas and HELP spelled out in rocks or sagebrush.

It’s a strangely compelling and satisfying exercise to retrieve a “hit” from Mechanical Turk, scan it for a plane, wreckage, a distress signal, a sign. If you see something noteworthy (and I haven’t), you click yes and write a note about it. If not, you click no and retrieve your next hit.

Multiply that exercise by thousands —potentially millions—round the world, and it’s certainly a contender for the world record for largest search party ever assembled.

According to its site, www.mturk.com, Mechanical Turk provides “a web services API for computers to integrate “artificial artificial intelligence” directly into their processing by making requests of humans. Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. Behind the scenes, a network of humans fuels this artificial artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work .”

Of course searching for Steve is volunteer work, but when you take a break browse around the paying areas of the site. Most engagements seem to pay five cents a hit or so for your work, so no huge money-making opportunities here yet, but think about it: This could be the way that many companies decide to work in the future. Outsource a huge task to Turk, and thousands of strangers can pitch in, or just leverage everyone in your company for a few minutes. As the old saying goes, many hands make quick work. Presto! Done! Just pick up your virtual shovel and start digging.

So here’s my pitch: Sign up and help look for Steve when you have a chance. Be part of the world’s largest search party.

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1 Comment
  1. sonya says

    I never considered using satellite internet tech. as a tool in rescue missions. If this works, there must be future employment opportunities in the computer-rescue field.

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