Last year, Sarah Parcak won the $1 million TED Prize for her work identifying ancient artifacts and sites of archaeological interest from space. If you wondered if she might retire quietly with her newfound riches, you'd be wrong.
NPR reports that Parcak, whose Twitter handle is @IndyFromSpace, is using the money to set up a crowdsourcing website that will turn all of us into satellite-enabled archaeological sleuths. Dubbed Global Xplorer, this website aims to correct the fact that, so far, archaeologists have only investigated about 10 percent of the Earth's surface.
Rather than relying solely on the limited pool of trained archaeologists, Parcak's project will use the power of satellite imagery and the Internet to encourage hundreds, maybe even thousands, of volunteer participants to help investigate select satellite images, and to identify any markers that might be a sign of an ancient artifact.
Of course mistakes will happen, and false positives will be many, but the genius of Parcak's model is that once a decent number of amateur archaeologists have flagged the same object or pattern, the professionals will be able to swoop in and verify if there's something worth investigating further. The site will also enable amateurs to compare what they're seeing with known examples of existing discoveries — for example excavated houses or hidden tombs — so that they can add tags with thoughts on what they think they might be seeing.
The overall idea is to "gamify" space archaeology. Much like citizen science projects that have changed how conservation studies are conducted, this will combine the benefits of having many untrained but enthusiastic amateurs with the benefits of an elite, specially trained but resource-constrained group of professional experts.
Of course, as the NPR interview points out, in this age of ISIS and looting in the Middle East, it's likely that some will have concerns about such technology being used for nefarious purposes. After all, ISIS and other Jihadist groups have made a lot of money looting ancient artifacts. But Global Xplorer will keep the specific locations and other identifying markers of areas being investigated secret, allowing amateurs to explore the Earth's surface without ever really knowing where we are in the world.
It sure seems like a more productive way to burn up Internet hours than watching cute kitten videos.