Virtual search party for Malaysian plane back up and running

A digital mapping company that allowed web surfers around the world to hunt the vast ocean waters for the vanished Malaysian jetliner was back up and running after an overwhelming response caused it to crash Tuesday.

Colorado-based Digital Globe has trained its five satellites on the Gulf of Thailand region—the last known whereabouts of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The orbital units transmit photos and data of the vast area which viewers can scan on a website called Tomnod-- Mongolian for “Big Eye.” The hope is that millions of sets of eyes, with an assist from above, can help solve the mystery of what happened to the plane and the 239 people on board.

But a day after the initial images were posted online, the site required emergency maintenance to handle the large virtual search party. On Wednesday, it was back up, allowing visitors to scan thousands of miles of ocean for signs of the plane.


“It’s a good reason to have our site crash,” a spokesperson for DigitalGlobe told “We did get an overwhelming amount of people responding. It has been going well. We are getting a lot of tags and will be uploading more images for people to search.”

Any computer user can log onto Tomnod and pore through thousands of high-definition images of a particular region and publicly "geotag" anything that raises suspicion. A computer algorithm is then used to determine whether certain areas are tagged more than others, and in-house experts follow any leads from the consensus tagging.

“Luckily, the imagery had been exhausted with searching before the site went down,” Luke Barrington, senior manager of Geospatial Big Data for DigitalGlobe said to “We have had six million map views. Half-a-million people have signed up, it’s a 100 times the response we’ve had before.”

Many of the searchers tagged pictures of what appeared to be oil slicks in images that were taken Sunday, but it was later determined that they were not related to the Malaysian airplane.

New images were expected to be uploaded later Tuesday that included a wider area, branching out from the gulf of Thailand to the West Peninsula of Malaysia and the Malacca Straits.

This is not the first time Digital Globe, which owns Tomnod, has used the site for a crowd-sourced search.

Last November, the company launched a campaign after Typhoon Haiyan in Southeast Asia in which users placed more than 400,000 tags on damaged buildings, homes, and other areas.

It also launched a campaign that same month to help with the search for an American family and crew aboard a vintage sailboat that vanished in the Tasman Sea last June.

David Dyche, was an experienced sailor who worked for a U.S. shipping company and was sailing the Nina from New Zealand to Australia with his wife, teenage son and four-member crew when they hit rough weather. The schooner wound up missing after damage to the sail left it adrift hundreds of miles from shore. An aerial search mounted nearly two weeks later turned up nothing.

As reported by at the time, Tomnod had compiled more than 50 images from five satellites of the Tasman, with each image covering 620 square miles. The images have been viewed over 3.7 million times online, volunteer and virtual searchers. No definitive sign of the ship has been found.

“There are two key differences between the search for the Nina and the plane,” Barrington said. When I was contacted by the family members, the ship had already been missing for two months. It was a last resort almost.”

“This time when the Malaysia plane went missing I was getting messages from the Tomnod community asking when we were going live with maps,” he added. “They wanted to help right away.”

“To be culled in from the start…It’s showing now that this has the capability to be one of the first choices in search efforts.”