So, how is this effort actually helping the search? By working on some of the components of the search and rescue equation. Although there is some art to search and rescue, there is a lot of science as well. There is a basic equation that drives all search planning which I have paraphrased. More info is available.
However, the civilian effort is still constrained by The Probability that you will spot the survivor. Although you might be looking at a satellite photo of the right area, cloud cover, inexperience, carelessness could prevent spotting the survivor. By having multiple people look at the same image, carelessness can be screened out, but the clarity of the photo is still a limiting factor. A survivor once told us a Coast Guard helicopter had flown right over him. Night, high seas and rain, though, lowered the The Probability that you will spot the survivor.
So, is there potential here for the Coast Guard? SETI is a proven distributed effort. Crowdsourcing is being considered as a viable solution. If the Coast Guard wants to extend and formalize this effort, there are a few next steps starting with proof of concept. I'm not sure if there is opportunity here, but I hope it is evaluated to find out.
- Validate the ability to search using satellites photos. Can the average person spot a sailboat? Could a computer program be made to do it? How often will weather prevent a suitable picture?
- Gauge the interest of the public to help more anonymous mariners. Would civilians mobilize to help out a mariner without a large public persona?
- Evaluate how quickly people would mobilize. Help needs to begin immediately as the chance for survival is a function of time.
One more comment on this story. I've read a few comments that the Coast Guard gave up and that simply gives the wrong impression. Sometimes the duration of disappearance, weather conditions and other factors make survival unlikely. In those cases, the Coast Guard has to weigh the extreme unlikelihood of finding a survivor against the danger to its own crews and the need to perform other missions, which include search and rescue for someone else. Believe me, as someone who has had to inform people that the Coast Guard was suspending a search, you do everything possible. It's not an easy decision and it certainly is not giving up.