Archeology professor Sarah Parcak, Ph.D, has used satellite imagery to map ancient archeological sites for nearly 20 years. In her work, she always tries to involve and engage local communities, like school groups and senior citizens, to get a wide perspective on her archaeological findings.
After winning the 2016 TED Prize, she immediately knew what she wanted to do with the $1 million grant — bring technology into archaeology.
“The idea of creating something that a diverse group of people could use, and help with broadening participation in archeology, was very, very attractive to me,” says Parcak. “I wanted to create a global technology platform to engage people from around the world in exploration and discovery.”
She developed a crowdsourcing platform, GlobalXplorer, to ask citizens around the world to help analyze the satellite images that archaeologists search to find new discoveries. This approach, called citizen science, is a new method that many researchers are using to engage amateur scientists and enthusiasts and help them gather data.
Once a user signs in, GlobalXplorer takes them through quick tutorials on archeological concepts, like a computer game tutorial. The user then reviews 300×300 meter slices from high-resolution satellite images, called tiles, to answer yes/no questions.
The more tiles they look at, the better they get at identifying possible archeological sites and the more they level up. It’s exactly the work that Parcak and her team do on a daily basis, all in a gamified, fun presentation.
“A lot of the work that we do is visual site detection. We’re using advanced algorithms and tweaking them to process these images, but it still takes us so long as we are looking to find archeological sites over massive areas. The idea is that the wisdom and power of the crowd can help us find them almost as effectively as people that do this work,” says Parcak.
To save time and minimize error, a minimum of six people need to reach a consensus that they saw something significant on a tile before the professional team is pinged to look at it.
The team dived into their potential user profile and design because they wanted to create “something elegant and easy to use,” that would also translate across cultures.
“I’m a big advocate now for spending a lot of time thinking deeply about the process of design. We created a series of user archetypes for the platform to understand what each group wanted,” says Parcak.
“Archeology has had and still continues to perpetuate this colonialist mentality, which we and many others are working to end. The idea here is that everyone has the right to participate in the discovery of their own cultural heritage.”
The GlobalXplorer team went to Peru for their first project. In that endeavor, they saw over 80,000 volunteers from around the world review the tiles in the satellite images. The citizen science crowdsourcing effort was able to find over 17,000 anthropogenic (man-made) findings, and about 400 appear to be major archeological sites.
“The crowd is really wise. They had between an 80 to 85 percent success rate in picking out archaeological features,” Parcak says.
Finding these potential archeological sites faster can help the researchers stay one step ahead of archaeology looters, and help preserve important discoveries for future generations.
GlobalXplorer is set up as a non-profit and is free to use for the public. They make strategic partnerships with city governments, universities and cultural ministries to reach more volunteers and generate sponsorships and donations. Their biggest users have been emerging archeology talent from universities, with professors using the platform for extra credit projects.
The non-profit is currently based in Birmingham, AL and employs five at the moment. They’re ramping up the launch of two more countries in early 2019 along with growing fundraising efforts to develop more partnerships.