Crowdsourcing the Manhunt

In 2003, Howard Reingold wrote a book called Smart Mobs. At the beginning of that book he wrote about an anti-war protest held in San Francisco in 2002. He noted that it was one of the first decentralized protests in human history. Instead of everyone meeting in one place to demonstrate, protesters passed on some simple instructions to anyone who was interested. The instructions were simple; shut down business, traffic, and cause peaceful mayhem to protest the war.

I was living in San Francisco at the time, and to get to work I had to walk through South of Market where most of the protests were scheduled. That day was total chaos. People chained themselves together on the freeway on-ramp, blocking all inbound traffic on the bay bridge. Another group staged a big press scene by vomiting on the Federal Building. Reingold pointed out that this was one of the moments that illustrated that we had reached a tipping point as a connected society, and it had changed our social actions in a major way. People had shared their goal for the protest over SMS and email, and the end result of the demonstration was far superior than anyone could have programmed individually. And so it has gone with most things crowd-sourced since that time, (so much so that this story doesn't seem all that novel ten years later.)

Which brings me to the man hunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber that (thankfully) concluded tonight. If the San Francisco protest in 2002 was a watershed moment for how we organized and collaborated, I think this week has tons of signifigance both in how we collectively solve problems, and the impact of living with devices that are constantly capturing data (phones, tweets, geo-tags, sensors, etc, etc.) </p>

This week, we saw...

  • Reddit and 4Chan turn into full-on detective agencies using open platforms and their own style of sleuthing in hopes of identifying possible suspects. (This all went terribly wrong.)
  • News reports that had photos of the boat the assailant was hiding in before they could gain access to the perimeter.
  • Analysis on the suspect's Twitter account to figure out his daily patterns.
  • Collaboratively created maps of anything and everything related to the series of events.
  • Collective fundraising to help one of the amputees pay for health insurance.
  • Police using data from the marathon to identify runners who would have been finishing at the time of the explosion in order to possibly connect with their families in the search for the suspects.
  • Reddit ordered pizza for all the participating police departments.

Indeed, when we had very little to go on, we had the data created as a byproduct of the event and of the suspects lives….and that turned out to be quite a lot to work with.

The Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt will probably go down as one of the biggest news events of this decade. But I actually think the way the internet voluntarily assembled to solve problems together with all the residual data from the event is a much bigger moment.