Search and Rescue via Social Networking

My friend Brian Humphrey of the LA Fire Department (watch for an interview with him here as soon as he has a chance in his 96-hour workday in between appearances on CNN and the Today Show) told me about an amazing civilian-led search and rescue operation that’s going on right now using technology and online social networks.

Last Sunday (Jan 28), a renowned Microsoft researcher named James Gray (pictured above) failed to return from a sailing trip in the San Francisco Bay Area. The US Coast Guard searched the ocean along nearly the length of California from Sunday night through Thursday without finding a thing — Dr. Gray’s sailboat Tenacious was gone without a trace.

On that Monday, dozens of Dr. Gray’s colleagues, friends and former students came together to figure out ways to use their technical know-how to find him. Computer scientists from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, NASA and various universities put together software, created a blog to track their efforts, and leveraged technical resources like Google Earth’s satellite imaging expertise and Amazon’s image processing capabilities.

Google worked with DigitalGlobe to capture satellite images of the hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean coastline that were the most likely areas Dr. Gray’s boat would be found. The circle of computer scientists then created a program to break up the images in a way that they could be posted to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk site, where people can sift through the images one by one to see if there were any sign of the boat or debris. Images that are marked by the volunteers as having objects of potential interest are then reviewed by the team. Any promising leads will be followed up on by the Coast Guard. (If you would like to volunteer to help sift through the images, go to

In addition to scanning the satellite images, the group is using the blog as a clearinghouse to collect ideas, share theories and for people with related expertise to put together clues as to what might have happened to Dr. Gray’s boat. There are oceanography experts looking at ocean models, scientists looking at radar data, communications experts trying to figure out his trajectory based on the last signals from his cell phone, people in their own planes and boats physically searching the waters, volunteers putting up posters and talking to boaters and Harbormasters around Bay Area marinas, and many other angles being pursued. The technology is making it possible for people from across the country and around the world to put their heads together to come up with solutions quickly.

Dr. Gray must have touched a lot of lives to engender the kind of dedicated effort being expended to find him. With this amount of brain power focused on looking for him, I would like to think he has a good chance of being found soon. I wish them tremendous luck in their search and hope this story will have a happy ending. I’m going to get back to scanning the images. There are still more than 3000 left in this group to get though.

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