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Web collects 650K clues in satellite-image search for missing plane

Thanks to Tomnod users, every pixel from available satellite images has been scanned by human eyes at least 30 times.

The search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 continues in the area of the Malacca Strait, a sea passageway between Indonesia (seen left on the map) and Malaysia.
ATAR/AFP/Getty Images

More than 2 million people are searching for clues in satellite imagery that could point to the whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the jetliner that disappeared Saturday with 239 people aboard while en route to Beijing.

The digital search effort is taking place on Tomnod, a crowdsourcing platform from DigitalGlobe, which operates five high-resolution commercial satellites and provides imagery to companies like Google. On Monday, Tomnod and DigitalGlobe kicked off a campaign and invited people to volunteer their time to comb through images for signs of the missing Boeing 777 jetliner.

Since then, people have collectively responded to the call by tagging more than 650,000 objects of interest from available images. Altogether, Tomnod has witnessed more than 98 million map views, with every pixel available having been scanned by human eyes at least 30 times.

The Tomnod team is in all-hands-on-deck mode, responding to the 2.2 million people who are dedicating their time to finding the aircraft, Shay Har-Noy, senior director of geospatial big data at DigitalGlobe and founder of Tomnod, told CNET.

Tomnod relies on complex algorithms to filter through the hundreds of thousands of tags being reported by volunteers, who are also assigned reliability scores based on their reports. Clues are funneled down through this process until the best ones are handed off to a team of expert analysts who look through tips and try to gain more information about interesting spots, Har-Noy said.

Despite the willingness of the Web to help, there have been no smoking guns yet, he said.

The search, however, won't stop. DigitalGlobe plans to add 14,000 square kilometers of satellite shots in the next 24 hours and is tracking developments to determine where to place its satellites next. Fresh images from the Straight of Malacca, where the aircraft may have lost contact, will be uploaded to the platform shortly, Har-Noy said.