DATA DETECTIVES

Inside the Crisis: How One Small Team Managed the Frantic Search for Flight 370

See what you can learn about responding rapidly and staying calm during a sudden, unprecedented spike in demand.
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In March, the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was front page news. The New York Times summed it up: 

It is the talk of lunchrooms, chat rooms and, most certainly, television green rooms across the globe: How and why could a modern passenger jet disappear without a trace? Along with the predictable U.F.O. theories, the suggestion, presumably facetious, that the television series "Lost" was secretly filming a new season became one of dozens of memes related to Flight 370, some more serious than others, on Twitter.

Nearly two months later, no one has found a trace of the flight, which left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing carrying 239 people back on March 8. The search continues, with international experts meeting in Sydney, Australia this week to coordinate the next step, but the media frenzy of early March has subsided. 

Meanwhile, in the world of business, a company that arguably played one of the largest roles in March's frenetic searching announced that it, too, was moving on.

Crisis Management Lessons From Tomnod

That company is DigitalGlobe, a publicly traded (NYSE: DGI, $156.5 million in first-quarter revenues) provider of satellite-imaging data and technology based in Longmont, Colorado (and a former Inc. 5000 company). Specifically, it was DigitalGlobe's Tomnod subsidiary that led a crowdsourced exploration of the waters where MH370 may have gone missing. And it declared this week that its role in the search had ended

Search teams investigated all the promising leads we discovered but the plane has still not been found. We mourn with the families and friends of everyone on board MH370. Although our role in this search has ended, DigitalGlobe's Tomnod platform continues to crowdsource the world.

As you might imagine, Tomnod, an eight-person team that operates with plenty of autonomy under the DigitalGlobe umbrella, had its share of stress and struggles when the news broke in early March. Overnight, it went from relative obscurity to a company that the world was watching--and relying on--in the search for MH370. 

And it was then that Tomnod faced its toughest test: Millions went to the Tomnod site, hoping to find the flight. Instead, what they found was a generic error page. "That was really bad," recalls Luke Barrington, DigitalGlobe's senior manager of geospatial big data and cofounder of Tomnod. "It was our biggest moment ever. Millions are hearing about it and getting there--and seeing a 404 error page."

But Tomnod managed through the crisis, eventually adding 8 million new users to their satellite-imaging platform, who together with the company tagged millions of possible clues over 1,007,750 square kilometers of ocean waters. 

Barrington recently shared his crisis-management lessons from the experience. Here are three of them: 

1. Identify the top pain point. In this case, it was clear what it was: Everyone on the receiving end of the 404 error page. 

Barrington borrowed a tactic from the Twitter playbook. There was a time that Twitter users would log in, only to find the image of an animated whale on their screens--a mirthful visual designed to make you a little less upset that Twitter was over capacity. In homage to Twitter's "fail whale," Barrington's team put up a cartoon clam. "It let people know it's not working," he said. "And the clam is better than a 404 message."

More importantly, the clam page explained what was going on--that Tomnod was over capacity--and added an important message to all of those anxious visitors searching for MH370: That Tomnod had analyzed all of the digital images it had receieved that day, and that it was not missing any vital information. 

In other words: We know you're out there. Don't worry. There's nothing you could be doing that would be saving someone's life right now. 

Tomnod also added a form where people could provide contact information--so Tomnod could reach out to them once it was no longer over capacity. Barrington says 300,000 people provided their contact information after seeing the "fail clam."

In identifying its web visitors as the key stakeholders, and prioritizing efforts in their direction, Tomnod was practicing a key fundamental of handling a crisis: Identifying the key stakeholders requiring management. In a fascinating MIT Sloan Management Review essay detailing the leadership expertise of those who managed the rescue of the Chilean miners, the authors list identifying the key stakeholders as one of 12 principles for leading through a crisis.  

2. Don't try to do it all yourself. "We talked to people who'd been there before," says Barrington. Specifically, Tomnod cofounder Shay Har-Noy had a friend who was an early Facebook employee. This friend gave the Tomnod team three really quick potential fixes for the capacity problem. 

Team Tomnod also leveraged the resources of its corporate parent, DigitalGlobe. Specifically, Tomnod realized that the problem had roots in its database parameters. They needed a skilled, seasoned database administrator (DBA) to do some quick work, but didn't have one on their team--and hardly had the time to hire one during the crisis. Luckily, DigitalGlobe had plenty of them in-house. All Tomnod had to do was recognize what was at hand and make the request. 

While reaching out to others may seem like an obvious thing to do, it is actually something that leaders--feeling pressed for time, and feeling, too, perhaps an egoistic need to be the hero--often fail to do at times of crisis and high pressure. 

What Tomnod did, in reaching out to others, is known as "situated humility." It is the art of gathering as much information from others as possible, because you're humble enough to recognize that there's no way you can know it all yourself. It is, in fact, practiced by firefighters during ungovernable wildfires, where "the situation is so dynamic, complex and uncertain that no individual can be fully knowledgeable under the circumstances," note Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe in their brilliant MIT SMR article, "Learning When to Stop Momentum," in which they introduce "situated humility" as a term.  

One firefighter tells them: "As old as I am and as experienced as I am in relation to these large fires, when I walk into the next fire I initially won't know anything. So I'm not going to come in there with guns blazing."

3. Use actual talking, not tools, to handle internal communication. Granted, Tomnod's eight-person team all work in the same open-space office area. So it's not as if they're a virtual team, for whom certain tools of the trade (e-mail, live chat) are all but required.

Regardless, there's no question in Barrington's mind that tons of talking--and the presence of the entire team in one room at the same time--were essential to quickly solving problems. "Physical proximity was really valuable," he says. 

In a 24-7 situation like this one, the proximity also helped the team stay fresh. It was easier for them to communicate, as a group, about all the times when there was much more to be done--but it would have to wait until tomorrow. "There was always more to do, but [at the end of each day] we were able to not leave any loose ends hanging," he says.

With the entire Tomnod team in once place, the eight team members had a high level of availability and accessibility with one another. Along with situated humility, availability/accessibility is one of several tips Barton and Sutcliffe list as a key to how firefighters stop dysfunctional momentum. "Many of the incidents in which actions continued along a disastrous path had decision makers not only failing to seek out other perspectives but also making themselves unavailable to those perspectives," they write. By contrast, they add, "successful fires tend to be characterized by a great deal of communication--between team leaders and crew members, among crew members and between leaders."

In Tomnod's case, the communication was constant, because they were all in the same place at the same time, reading the same whiteboard. They faced a figurative fire and, together, they extinguished it, honing their crisis-management chops in the process. 

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: May 6, 2014




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