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Malaysia Airlines Mystery: Why the Public Is Asked to Use Tomnod, Not Google Maps, to Help Look for Plane


Google Maps images are weeks or months old and are therefore useless for searching. However, armchair detectives have another option.

If you've ever played around with Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Maps before, you know that you can use the service to view satellite images of most places on Earth. With the still-unresolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 five days ago, many users went straight to Google Maps to try and help look for the plane.

That turned out to be a problem. After several people contacted The Star, a Malaysian newspaper, to report possible sightings of the missing Boeing (NYSE:BA) 777, Google was forced to issue a statement, explaining that Google Maps does not use real-time satellite imaging, and that what users see can be from several weeks or months ago.

Because of this, the Google Maps "discoveries" have only served to confuse authorities and the press even more, with users reporting planes in many different locations.

However, for all those people who want to help from their computer, there is another option, and it could actually work., a website owned by the Colorado-based satellite company DigitalGlobe (NYSE:DGI), has been optimized to allow the public to help solve the ongoing mystery of Flight MH370.


Employing five satellites that have been focused on the Gulf of Thailand region, Tomnod, which means "big eye" in Mongolian, is providing high-resolution satellite photos that users can carefully comb through. When Tomnod launched its open search for the missing flight, the site saw 6 million map views before its servers crashed and required maintenance (at the time of this writing, the site had crashed again).

Here's how it works: Users log on to and can see several images taken by the five satellites, which are approximately 400 miles above sea level. If users notice anything that could be a plane or a clue, they can tag the object or area. Then the site employs an algorithm to determine which objects and areas have been tagged most. These most-tagged spots will be reviewed by the company's in-house experts.

This is not the first time DigitalGlobe has employed crowdsourcing in the case of a crisis. Last November, the company enabled users to tag objects and areas in the Philippines that were most affected by the catastrophic Typhoon Haiyan. That information was given to emergency responders on the ground.

Follow me on Twitter: @JoshWolonick and @Minyanville
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