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March 18th, 2014
What can be gleaned about today’s technology from the growing mystery of MH370?

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Geospatial technologies have been deployed at a grand scale to help track down the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 that continues to confound considerable search efforts more than a week after its disappearance. The tragic and sobering disappearance is compounded by the shrunken size of the world thanks to the proliferation of communications and observation satellites. The fact that anything can be lost so completely flies in the face of today’s understanding of our finite planet, and provides a humbling check on the powers of today’s technology.

With so many resources deployed from numerous governments and commercial companies, new and innovative approaches are being tried in order to bring peace and closure for the families and the world. What started out as a seemingly tragic mechanical failure has morphed into a possible hijacking, with few clues to point the way to the planes course and location. The ongoing use of satellite imagery in the search has not solved the case, and in fact complicated matters when China released what turned out to be a false lead, but it is providing a slim thread of hope for evidence and clarity.

Crowds Respond

With so much attention on this ongoing mystery, several online interactive websites have been deployed to harness the help of the masses. DigitalGlobe have deployed their Tomnod platform that couples with their imagery to allow any computer user to become an image analyst to tag images for possible clues. An overwhelming response of six million map views and 500,000 people were 100 times their best response previously with server downtime while they ramped up their resources.

This amazing response, combined with simple and intuitive tools that make everyone a mapper, has compiled insight from a great deal of imagery quickly. Humans as sensors have proven to fill a gap that technology is not yet capable of. The hope and promise that algorithms and artificial intelligence will provide automated feature extraction to quickly find the elements that elude us is still a ways off, with our brains and eyeballs in aggregate getting the job done.

Scaling Complexity

The escalating uncertainty of possible course and location of the missing plane continues to elude authorities, with a massive search area that has grown as the days have progressed. The lack of radar readings, and a seemingly disabled transponder are leading to conclusions of foul play. Add the pings detected from the Inmarsat satellite, and the area has expanded yet again.

Mapbox provided a compelling compilation of the satellite imagery that has been collected, correlated with the growing search area. What’s immediately visually apparent is the growing amount of imagery that while impressive doesn’t adequately cover the whole search area, particularly if high-resolution is required. The scale of the search area compared to a relatively small plane in motion doesn’t correlate to a successful imagery outcome, at least not yet.

Only Theories

Unfortunately, there are a great many theories out there with very few facts to support them. Frustration exists with those that question the resources of governments given the understanding that additional classified imagery resources exist. A growing number of plane enthusiasts and pundits have weighed in, with little but new ideas to offer given the dearth of new clues.

As the mystery drags on, there are more theories, as well as conspiracy theories, as we all want answers. There are thoughts of terrorism as well as political manipulation, with some calling for a greater examination of China with the idea that they might use this confusion as a ploy for regional unrest. The mystery has clearly fed unease that satellite imagery could put to rest if only the right image can be found.

Throughout this already nine-day ordeal, maps and mapping technologies have been central to the narrative. Given the ongoing mystery, this event is likely to spur an interest in increased sensing as we clearly need more monitoring and awareness in order to counterbalance the unsettling certainty that our world is a large and complex place.

 

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