This picture, taken outside of Aberdeen, Scotland, was among those found in a camera and used to track down its owners.
Reminds me of children's book Flotsam.
April 8, 2009
Lost in the Real World, Found via Cyberspace
By BRAD STONE
Rhonda Surman and her husband were hiking around some Bronze Age ruins in western Scotland last year when they glimpsed sunlight reflecting off burnished metal. It was an Olympus digital camera, lying on the ground.
The couple turned the camera over to the local police, but eight weeks later it was returned to them, unclaimed.
Ms. Surman, who lives in northern Scotland, did not give up. There were 600 pictures on the camera’s memory card, including some from a wedding and a couple’s European travels. Ms. Surman posted several of them on the Internet and, in the next few months, organized a group of amateur detectives who traced clues in the photos, leading them back to the camera’s stunned and delighted owner.
“I don’t think I’m nicer than anyone else,” she said, “but I thought the pictures showed a honeymoon. That was the bit that made me try harder.”
Plenty of people like Ms. Surman are acting on the same impulse these days and embracing a new role: digital Samaritan. The Internet may allow bad guys to stalk people or steal their identities. But it also makes it easier to give something back, because of sites and tools that can help people reunite strangers with lost valuables like wallets, cellphones and cameras.
Companies are also moving to exploit the fact that millions of people have published information about themselves on the Web. Traditional lost-and-founds are migrating online, and a batch of start-ups and hobby Web sites have sprouted with the aim of harnessing people’s altruistic impulses to return lost items.
“Generally when people are given the opportunity to do something good for someone else, they’ll take it,” said Matt Preprost, a college student in Canada who has created a blog, Found Cameras and Orphan Pictures, to reunite cameras and their owners.
Peter O’Donnell, a 30-year-old engineer for Fannie Mae, recently indulged a humanitarian impulse after finding a wallet on the counter of a 7-Eleven in Washington. Before giving it to the clearly apathetic cashier, Mr. O’Donnell took a picture of the driver’s license with his iPhone.
The next morning, he found the wallet’s owner, a college student from South Dakota, on Facebook, and sent her an e-mail message telling her where she could find it.
“It’s not that I’m a saint, but I try to go out of my way if it’s reasonable,” he said.
Some digital Samaritans have to work to get around barriers that are set up to protect people’s privacy. Shannon Kokoska, 39, dropped her wallet on a city bus in San Francisco in January and, later that night, before she knew it was gone, received an e-mail message from the man who had found it. Two of her credit card companies had declined to give him her address or phone number, so her white knight had sent her a message on Facebook.
“It’s nice to be reminded of that story,” said Ms. Kokoska, who was recently robbed of her iPod on the same bus.
Many airports and transit systems are using similar strategies. Miami International Airport takes queries for lost items over the Internet, and also uses the Web as its primary tool for locating passengers who have lost items.
Ernesto Alonso, the terminal operations agent in charge of the service, has used Google and the online White Pages to return a laptop to a traveler from Australia, a locker full of satellite equipment to a company in Washington, and an urn of human remains to a cemetery in New Jersey. (A family member of the deceased had inexplicably left the urn on top of a trash can at a departure gate.)
“We used to return about 30 percent of the items we got,” Mr. Alonso said. “With the Internet available to us, that total number is now over half, and you have to remember that a lot of the other stuff we get is junk.”
Some see using the Web to reunite lost items with their owners as a potential business opportunity. Several start-ups, with names like SendMeHome, BoomerangIt and TrackItBack, allow people to register and stamp their valuables with codes. If these items are lost, the people who find them can enter the numbers on the Web to locate their owner.
The start-ups all say that more than two-thirds of people who find these items do the right thing and return them.
For some, it can feel awkward to use the Web to track down a complete stranger. Peter Hill, a former network engineer at the University of Washington, found a wallet in the parking garage of a Seattle-area Whole Foods store and used his iPhone to enter Facebook, find the owner’s name and then find one of her friends on the site who had attended his university. Then he used the school’s online directory to call the friend, and asked her to alert the wallet’s owner.
The owner was pleased, but had plenty of questions for Mr. Hill. “You feel somewhat strange cyberstalking a person that you don’t know, even if it’s just trying to reunite them with their wallet,” he said.
But sometimes the ends can justify some intrusive means. After deciding that she wanted to track down the owners of the lost Olympus camera, Rhonda Surman posted a half-dozen of its pictures on the photo-sharing site Flickr, including a portrait of a woman holding a tiny red-collared dog in the snow in front of a house.
Members of Flickr’s Scottish discussion forums jumped at the chance to solve a mystery and worked together, identifying clues in the backgrounds of the photos, like a danger sign on a quarry fence in one and a distant skyline in another. The clues led them to the western neighborhoods of Aberdeen, on Scotland’s east coast.
One Flickr member lived in Aberdeen and drove up and down the streets looking for the house that resembled the one in the dog picture. He found a match, and other Flickr users found a phone number for the landlord of that house.
Soon, Ms. Surman was speaking with Nicholas Filippelli, an American oil executive temporarily living in Scotland with his wife, Tai, and their Chihuahua mix, Moe. He had forgotten all about the lost camera.
Mr. Filippelli sent Ms. Surman flowers, and though the photos did not, in fact, show his honeymoon, and he found it “kind of scary” that someone could locate him using only a lost camera, he was moved by her efforts.
“When we found out about everything that went into tracking us down and understood how far she went, that was really touching,” he said. “She did a lot of good detective work.”