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AFP, Getty Images
Steve Fossett, right, gets a kiss from Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson last year. Branson has organized the online search for his missing friend.

While the ground and air search for adventurer Steve Fossett has been scaled back in Nevada, the computer search continues, with the help of volunteers around the world.

Since Fossett's plane disappeared Sept. 3, tens of thousands of virtual searchers have scoured millions of satellite images of the high Nevada desert where he was last seen. Using a combination of technology developed by Amazon and Google, the searchers are looking for anything that may resemble a plane crash and then submitting their reports to Amazon.

To try to prevent millions of dead-end tips, each satellite image is analyzed by multiple people at Amazon. Unless most of them see something, the tips are not forwarded to authorities conducting the ground search.

The online effort was organized by British billionaire Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic and a friend of Fossett's. Branson also financed the record-setting balloon flight around the world that Fossett completed last year. The online search set-up included purchasing the thousands of updated satellite images used by the volunteers, which were needed because Google Earth images can be weeks, or even years, old.

So far, the search for Fossett — online, as well as in the air and on the ground — has been fruitless, and last week the Nevada Civil Air Patrol announced that it is scaling back the physical search efforts. Searchers have found at least eight wreckage sites with planes that had been lost for years, but no sign of Fossett.

Still, the fact that so many people participated in the online search (and continue to look) indicates that using Internet tools for these widespread, collaborative efforts may become common.

Online collaboration is becoming much easier because computer users can set up their own Wiki site, which allows users to edit, revise and update the Web site from within their own Web browser.

Pete Ashdown, the founder of Salt Lake-based Internet service provider XMission, said other notable Wiki-type efforts have included Project Gutenberg. Using volunteers, books with expired copyrights were scanned, and because computers can misread scanned text, the book files were checked for accuracy before being published as e-books.

The Fossett search, however, has brought more widespread attention to the possibilities of Internet collaboration. The online search allows people to play a small role in trying to help during a tragedy, and it provides them a chance for instant fame.

"It's for people with a little bit of free time who want to lend a hand, so there is a humanitarian motivation," Ashdown said. "But if you're the person who finds Steve Fossett, that will bring you some notoriety. In that way, it's like a treasure hunt."

The system is not perfect, because some people will submit their discoveries directly to authorities. While the online search has not yielded Fossett's plane, people continue to look on their computers and provide what may be the needed lead.

"Thousands of people have been sending in information," Nevada Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Steven Snyder said. "When the Europeans get off work, we get a bunch of e-mails. When the East Coasters get off work, we get a bunch of e-mails."


Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com