Crowd-sourcing The Boston Marathon Attack

Posted April 17th, 2013 at 1:22 pm (UTC-4)
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How Social Media, And Thousands of Pictures, May Help Solve The Puzzle

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

For being one of the most punishing, grueling athletic tests an individual can put themselves through, marathons are surprisingly popular. This year in the United States alone, 632 marathons are scheduled to be run. Year in and year out, the most popular are the New York Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and the Boston Marathon, the latter annually drawing over 500,000 spectators to line the route. Dating back to 1897, the marathon has been run every year since in the streets of Boston, making it the world’s oldest annual 26-mile race.

Now, with the events of this week, it’s also the world’s most painful – at least in the fresh memories of many of those on hand for the bombing attacks near the finish line. As of this writing, 3 people are dead and 176 others wounded as a result of the twin explosions that were separated by 12 seconds and around 200 feet.

The FBI is publicly cautioning there are few leads at this point, and that tracking down those responsible may take a long time. Forensic experts are combing the site for any and all possible clues – blast patterns, chemical residues, surveillance cameras, shards of metal used as shrapnel, the works.

Paul McRae, a native of New Zealand now living in Jacksonville, takes a photograph of an empty Boylston Avenue near the Boston Marathon finish line, in Boston, Tuesday, April 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

But the marathon’s status as one of the world’s preeminent sporting events is giving investigators another tool to work with: social media. Each year, hundreds of professional and thousands of amateur photographers descend on Boston to capture still and video images of the competitors as they battle each other and their own exhaustion. And much like the NASCAR crash of two months ago, it’s likely that many, if not most, of the spectators are also recording what they see and posting it almost immediately online.

In the NASCAR case, race organizers initially tried to squelch any images or footage from leaking out in a vain attempt to control what the public saw (they soon relented.) In the case of the Boston marathon, however, the FBI is actively soliciting anyone who may have taped or posted any video, images or sounds of the event in an effort to track down any potential new leads. In short: the FBI is crowd-sourcing the Boston Marathon attack.

“The person who did this is someone’s friend, neighbor, coworker or relative,” said FBI special agent Richard DesLauriers. “Someone knows who did this.” DesLauriers is the lead investigator in the Boston bombings. He calls the investigation “wide open” and he’s asking anyone who may have images or video to contact the FBI and share what they have. The images themselves may provide valuable clues, but so, too, might some of the data encoded in the images – such as GPS position and UTC time – or their history of sharing and posting via social media.

Private crowd-sourcing efforts are underway as well. Just one day after the explosions, a new sub-directory opened up on the wildly popular Reddit site: “findbostonbombers.” “The fact people have come together in an effort to help speaks volumes,” says sub-Redditor Rather_Confused in his introduction post. “We want to help and are doing the best we can, but we must remember where helping ends and the job of professionals begins.”

Years ago, law enforcement officials may have considered it inappropriate, at best, to enlist citizens in a meaningful, collective way in any investigation as serious as this. But as mobile devices become ubiquitous, and the data trails of online activity thicken, it only makes sense.



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