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2/11/2008
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Remembering The Search For Jim Gray, A Year Later

Microsoft researcher Jim Gray went missing at sea more than a year ago. Co-worker Tom Barclay describes how the tech industry rallied to help the search efforts.

It's been more than a year since Jim Gray went missing Jan. 28 on a solitary sail from San Francisco Bay to the Farallon Islands.

No sign of him was ever found. But if he is gone, he is far from forgotten. Three organizations, the IEEE Computing Society, the Association of Computing Machinery, and University of California at Berkeley, are planning a joint tribute to him May 31 at Berkeley. It was the ACM that awarded Gray the A. M. Turing Award in 1998, the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize in computing, which now carries a $250,000 award. Members from all three organizations were engaged a year ago in an innovative search for a boat missing at sea, scanning thousands of panels of recent satellite data and plotting wind/drift patterns over a wide swath of ocean. The image reviewers were able to spot several candidate boats out on the Pacific, but on-the-scene inspection eliminated them as being Gray's missing 40-foot, red-hulled Tenacious.

Nevertheless, the Tenacious Search had continued long after the U.S. Coast Guard was forced to end its grid-patterned search off San Francisco. It halted only when participants agreed that all the relevant data that could be collected had been reviewed. Wherever Jim Gray was, they weren't going to be able to find him by the means they had been able to improvise, the Friends of Jim Gray announced Feb. 16, 2007.

Many voices have discussed that search, but a researcher who reported to Jim Gray at Microsoft's San Francisco Bay Area Lab, Tom Barclay, commented extensively a year ago on the search in response to questions from InformationWeek. His answers arrived too late to be included in the account published April 2. But his comments from that time bring back the sense of motivation that accompanied news of Gray's disappearance.

"At first, like others, I think I was in shock," wrote Barclay in a March 29, 2007, message. "I didn't do anything other than call Jim's cell phone, home phone, etc., hoping he would answer. I also kept in touch with the Coast Guard. ... I spent the entire day with Donna [Jim's wife] on Wednesday [Jan.31]. By then a number of 'Friends of Jim Gray' had started an informal e-mail discussion on what we could do. One message in particular shook me out of my stupor. A message [from Paula Hawthorne, former VP of R&D at Informix and a former co-researcher with Gray at UC-Berkeley] suggested that we acquire satellite data of the ocean and look for Tenacious. Personally, I felt like a fool for not thinking of it myself."

Barclay and Gray had built the massive database, Terraserver-USA, based on U.S. Geological Survey aerial photo data. For two years, Barclay had been assigned to Virtual Earth, a Microsoft project that made use of aerial photos and satellite data.

Barclay continued: "I asked several guys on the Virtual Earth team to participate in acquiring satellite imagery. They jumped in with both feet, planned and acquired imagery from GeoEye, Digital Globe, and RadarSat [satellite imagery firms] through our Virtual Earth facility in Boulder, Colo. This imagery all ended up on Mechanical Turk at Amazon. [The Mechanical Turk was an automated way to parcel out image inspection assignments to thousands of volunteers.]"

As the Coast Guard announced Jan. 31 it had to end its four-day search, Barclay and another former Gray associate agreed "to try to launch our own flights. She had received e-mails from some Friends of Jim Gray members and others, a Coast Guard auxiliary member and a flight instructor. I contacted our Vexcel subsidiary in Boulder, who put me in contact with Dave Ruiz at Pacific Aerial Surveys [in Oakland, Calif.].

"By 5 p.m. , Dave had arranged for a pilot to fly the coast from Eureka to the Golden Gate bridge. A Friends of Jim Gray pilot and another observer agreed to fly from the Gold Gate bridge to San Luis Obispo [south of San Francisco]. They both have single-engine planes, which we learned could not go over deep water. I talked with the Coast Guard Auxiliary member, Chris Taverner, and he found a commercial (charter) pilot with a twin engine plane. She and the commercial pilot flew over deep water for three hours from the Farallons east toward the Gate and south toward Santa Cruz.

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