On January 28, Jim Gray—one of the leading computer scientists in the field of database systems at Microsoft—set out on his 40-foot yacht Tenacious to scatter his mother’s ashes on the shores of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles off San Francisco Bay. That evening, after her husband failed to return, Gray’s wife reported him missing to the authorities. He hasn’t been seen since.

A Coast Guard search failed to uncover any sign of Gray or the Tenacious and was abandoned last Thursday. But Gray’s friends in the computer-science world were not about to give up hope so soon. Harnessing the power of the technologies they knew so well, his friends and colleagues have launched one of the largest and most comprehensive volunteer search efforts in history.

It all started with a mass e-mail describing the situation from a UC Berkeley professor, Joseph Hellerstein. One of the recipients happened to be Google’s Sergei Brin, who soon helped convince DigitalGlobe—one of the satellite-imaging suppliers for Google Earth—to reposition a satellite for a special sweep of the Bay Area. The resulting images, covering 3,500 square miles of ocean, were then loaded into Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a Web application designed to efficiently use large groups of humans to perform the types of intensive data analysis that are particularly difficult for computers, such as finding a tiny dot of wreckage among a veritable ocean of satellite images. Images with potentially important information are flagged by volunteers and passed on to experts for a more thorough analysis. Today the first round of processing for all 560,000 satellite images was completed, less than a week after they were originally taken.

The massive search party is also using a blog created by Hellerstein to coordinate its efforts and hypothesize ways to expand the search—everything from putting up posters in marinas and airports along the coast to listing every piece of equipment known to be onboard Gray’s yacht in hopes of finding new areas of technology to expand the search.

As of this writing, no sign of Gray or the Tenacious has been found. If any comfort is to be had in such situations for Gray’s family and friends, it comes from knowing that the tech world’s best and brightest are doing everything conceivable to find him. A truly impressive feat. —John Mahoney

Tenacious Search” blog
Mechanical Turk project page