Skip to content
CityLab
Culture

How Amateur Mappers Are Helping Recovery Efforts In Nepal

A crowdsourcing satellite-imagery site that made headlines when Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared last year is now being used to plot parts of Kathmandu in need of aid.
Kathmandu from above, one day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Nepalese city.
Kathmandu from above, one day after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Nepalese city. DigitalGlobe

In the waning days of April 2014, two months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared somewhere near the South China Sea, 60-year-old American pilot Michael Hoebel reported that he had found it. Unlike many searchers, Hoebel was not employed by a government, or an airline; he claimed he had discovered the wreckage of the passenger jet from the comfort of his home computer. He was not alone: About 8 million other people logged onto the global-imaging crowdsource website Tomnod during the initial, frenzied search for Flight 370.

It was not the site's first crowdsourcing campaign, but it was by far its most popular. Tomnod, a project of the geospatial content company DigitalGlobe, provided armchair plane-hunters like Hoebel with constantly updated satellite images of the rapidly growing search area and the tools to digitally “tag” mysterious shapes in the sea. More essentially, it gave people the world over a way to feel like they were really helping to find the plane. They didn't, really: Hoebel’s “plane," off the coast of Thailand, wasn't a plane at all. Flight 370 is still missing, over a year after it fell off of radar.