In October, a boat carrying 243 people disappeared without a trace – and no one noticed.
When we think of the word “crowdsourcing,” we tend to think of money raised for creative output. Games, movies, books. A bowl of potato salad. Of course, there are wider applications; the Smithsonian Institute crowdsources the transcription of historic documents. University of California, San Diego relied on average people and satellite imagery to fuel the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb. But these uses, as important as they are, focus on the past. Is there a way to crowdsource an immediate social problem, even a matter of life and death?
“Two hundred and forty three people missing,” wrote Yafet, the husband and father of two of the boat’s passengers, in Medium's first Ghost Boat newsletter. “If you remember Charlie Hebdo in Paris, 14 or 15 people, they got shot by some terrorists. The world stopped for them.” Yet the missing Ghost Boat made no headlines, and it’s not the only such missing refugee boat. According to Medium's research, over 20,000 undocumented immigrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea since the mid-1990s. It seemed like no one paid any attention.
That is, until Medium picked up the story. The platform’s Ghost Boat project, launched in October, aims to answer a single question: what happened to the 243 Eritrean refugees on board a boat bound for Libya that never completed its journey? Inspired by the frustrated friends and family of the missing refugees, Ghost Boat bypasses the red tape that comes with asking governments and NGOs for help and instead puts the power to help in the hands of every reader.
The project connects followers across the globe who can use their skills to help solve the mystery. Geopolitical experts share information on the countries involved and their politics. Analysts plot boat incident data on interactive maps, allowing readers to see where the most boats disappear at sea. Average, ordinary people who may not even be able to find Eritrea on a map can examine US federal maritime reports to better understand the weather conditions that day and whether they affected the boat’s journey.
The best part about Ghost Boat, the search for Genghis Khan’s tomb, and the Smithsonian’s preservation efforts is that they don’t require their volunteers to donate anything except their time. The word “crowdsourcing” often means donating $10 to a videogame’s Kickstarter; it’s time to change the definition.