Under Way April 2007

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A search only Silicon Valley could have engineered

The search for San Francisco sailor and world-renowned computer scientist Jim Gray was like none other I can recall. The Coast Guard scoured about 132,000 square miles of coastal waters with planes, helicopters and boats, from one end of the California coast to the other and out about 350 miles.

It was a “vigorous” search, but that’s what the Coast Guard does. What made this case so unusual were the size, scope and complexity of the private search effort, which lasted for more than two weeks.

Gray, 63, a founder of Microsoft’s BayAreaResearchCenter, was a well-known, well-liked and accomplished member of the high-tech community based in and around Silicon Valley. When he failed to return after sailing out of San FranciscoBay to spread the ashes of his mother around the FarallonIslands, his friends and colleagues quickly sounded an alarm and help poured in (see story on Page 22). Within hours, engineers, researchers and scientists at Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com, Oracle and a host of other companies, not to mention the academic community, responded with their expertise, brain power, contacts and resources.

“This is definitely the most well-organized, deepest, privately funded search I’ve ever seen,” says Capt. David Swatland, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector San Francisco. “They exerted an effort like I’ve never seen before.”

These so-called “Friends of Jim” harnessed the reach, speed and capabilities of the Internet, along with a variety of remote sensing technologies, and focused them all on trying to find one 40-foot red-hulled C&C sailboat named Tenacious that had vanished without a trace. No fuel slick, no debris, no mayday.

Drift modeling and image analysis teams formed, and a blog was set up to serve as a clearinghouse for information. The site contained everything from a detailed list of the equipment aboard Tenacious and Gray’s “sailing practices” to the final time the scientist’s “smart phone” synched with a cell tower.

DigitalGlobe, a company that provides satellite images for Google Earth, redirected a satellite to better cover the search area. The Canadian Space Agency did the same with one of its search-and-rescue satellites. And NASA agreed to swing over the search area with one of its ER-2 aircraft (successor to the U-2 spy plane) on a previously scheduled flight and take photos with near-infrared cameras.

Many of these large images were then broken into smaller “tiles” and posted on the Amazon Mechanical Turk Web site. Again, the call for help went out via the Web, and the response was remarkable. About 6,000 volunteers reviewed roughly 560,000 images on the MTurk site, looking for anything that could be Tenacious. When a volunteer saw something he thought was noteworthy, he could “mark” the image, which would then be vetted by an image processing expert. Flights were dispatched to investigate at least two possible sightings, but nothing turned up.

“It was a huge volunteer effort,” Mike Olson, vice president for embedded technology at Oracle Corp., told me. In addition to the high-tech search techniques, Olson helped make sure the effort didn’t overlook the “importance of eyeballs on the water.”

To that end, volunteers flew private planes and searched with private boats. Others walked the shoreline looking for debris. Hundreds of posters with photos and descriptions of Gray and Tenacious were distributed along the California coast to Mexico. Someone even translated the posters into Chinese and Japanese.

“Friends of Jim” ended its active search Feb. 16, about 2-1/2 weeks after it began. Based on knowledge of the boat and weather conditions, Olson says the group is confident that Tenacious could not have out-sailed the search area, whether it was under power, autopilot or full sail.

He also spoke highly of the Coast Guard’s effort. “As an amateur at this, we were blown away by the professionalism and thoroughness of the Coast Guard search,” he says.

Olson says that at some point, the group may hold a conference or publish papers so that the tools and knowledge developed during the search won’t go to waste and will be there to help others in the future.

That would make Jim Gray proud.