How Downdetector Has Become Go-To Site for Online Disruptions
(Bloomberg) -- When Facebook Inc.’s platforms went down early on Oct. 4, the online tracker Downdetector was among the first places users looked to find out what was happening.
Downdetector, which uses crowdsourcing to track outages, recognized Facebook’s problems were dramatically different than a typical outage. Its system automatically released a notification, including a tweet, informing the internet of the disruption.
The outage was among the biggest ever declared by Downdetector, said Luke Deryckx, chief technology officer at closely held Ookla LLC, the Seattle-based company that owns it.
“Downdetector is a vehicle for users to report their experience,” he said, adding that the company crowdsources “users’ relationship with the internet.” “In this case, we’d received a clear and almost instantaneous signal that there was a Facebook-related outage.”
The idea of Downdetector was born over drinks at a bar in Haarlem, a city in the Netherlands, in February 2012. Tom Sanders and Sander van de Graaf were both working at IDG Communications Inc., the media publisher of magazines including CIO and Computerworld. Van de Graaf was a developer, and Sanders was the editor in chief. Readers would often call the newsroom to report an online outage at a company or service provider, but the reporters would often get no response -- or have to wait hours -- when they called to ask about the disruption.
“We thought, wouldn’t there be ways to automate this so we didn’t have to check with the press office and we could get the data directly ourselves?” Van de Graaf said.
They built a proof of concept in a single evening, eventually covering the entirety of the Netherlands, its banks, companies and mobile phone providers. They added Germany’s market within the first year of operating.
They initially worked on the project alongside their jobs in publishing before dedicating themselves full time to Downdetector. By the third year they expanded the site to include 21 countries, but they were still the only employees when they sold the company to Ookla in 2018. Van de Graaf declined to say how much Ookla paid for the company. Sanders went on to become product director at Ookla before leaving the company in 2020. Van de Graaf remains at Ookla, as principal solutions architect.
While the company generates a large chunk of its revenue from advertising on its site, it also collects subscriptions for its applications interface. This tool allows internet service providers, mobile carriers and network operation centers with near real-time data about the state of connectivity on the internet, said Deryckx.
Downdetector reported the outage after receiving more than 100,000 reports from around the world. Ultimately, the company received 15 million reports from users who were having trouble accessing the site or opening the app. The last significant outage, van de Graaf said, was when YouTube went down in late 2020. He said there are always “one or two big events” every year and that is unlikely to change.
“All of this is done by people, and people make mistakes,” he said. “It just shows how much we’re dependent on these services.”
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