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Crowdsourcing the World

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A map of the damage caused by a tornado that ripped through Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. Tomnod users flagged damaged buildings, downed trees and blue tarp-covered roofs. Visit tomnod.com for more information.

 
Alumni start-up acquired by leading supplier of commercial satellite imagery

Aug. 7, 2013, San Diego, Calif.--Every day, satellites take high-resolution pictures of the Earth. But it is almost impossible for humans to review these billions of pixels of information.  Enter Tomnod, a start-up co-founded by four alumni of the Jacobs School of Engineering who have harnessed crowdsourcing to sort through all these pixels. Their company was recently acquired by Colorado-based Digital Globe, a leading supplier of commercial satellite imagery.

The best applications for the technology are search and rescue operations during natural disasters. Tomnod has launched a crowdsourcing campaign to examine satellite images of the damage from the tornado that ripped through the State of Oklahoma in May 2013 and from Hurricane Sandy last year.

“This really goes with the nature of crowdsourcing,” said co-founder Luke Barrington, who earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Jacobs School. “People want to have an impact. They want to help.”

One of the company’s first campaigns was also a very personal one. Two San Diego climbers, and close friends of some of the Tomnod co-founders, had gone missing while attempting to climb a peak in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca in July 2012. Hundreds of people pored through images of the mountain, until they found some clues leading to the spot where the two men had fallen 1,000 feet to their death.

Tomnod, which means big eye in Mongolian, uses sophisticated machine learning algorithms to analyze all the images tagged by human users and determine which ones are the most likely to include useful information. “At first, we tried to extract the information with machine learning only,” said Barrington. “But there was just too much to process.”

Barrington met with fellow Tomnod co-founders Nate Ricklin and Shay Har-Noy when they were engineering Ph.D. students working on the same floor at Atkinson Hall. Albert Lin, another co-founder, was a research scientist there. The approach Tomnod uses was originally designed for the Valley of the Khans Project, an effort led by Lin, supported by the National Geographic Society and aimed at finding the tomb of Genghis Khan in Mongolia. With the success of that project, the graduate students decided to see what else their approach could be applied to.

Their time at UC San Diego, and especially at Calit2, now known as the Qualcomm Institute, inspired them in several ways. “It wasn’t the book smarts,” said Har-Noy. “It was the culture of innovation. We saw our professors start companies.”

For Barrington, UC San Diego’s emphasis on inter-disciplinary research was inspiring. He was an electrical engineering Ph.D. student, but for his thesis, he worked with computer engineers, material science engineers and musicians. “We need that broader thinking,” he said.

Tomnod also benefited from the support of EvoNexus, a start-up incubator in San Diego, which provided mentorship and facilities. “We were all working from home and were homeless in a way, when they arrived and helped us out,” Barrington said.  

After Tomnod was acquired by DigitalGlobe, Har-Noy, Ricklin and Barrington moved to Colorado, where they are creating an independent division within DigitalGlobe to build out their technology and leverage the company’s digital satellite image library. Lin chose to continue as a research scientist and principal investigator at UC San Diego.  He has received a large grant from the National Science Foundation to continue his work on crowdsourcing and technology-enabled exploration  and has recently launched a team to compete in the Tricorder X-prize.

“At Digital Globe, we can keep pursuing our vision of crowdsourcing the world,” Har-Noy said.

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Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering
Phone: 858-822-0899
ipatrin@ucsd.edu

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