Archaeological Satellite Data From Space Could Be the Future of Conservation

A new crowd-sourcing project aims to use satellite imagery of archaeological sites to track looting — and to give users hope during times of social upheaval.

A new website wants you to help archaeologists protect thousands of valuable archaeological sites worldwide from looting and other forms of human intervention.

Called GlobalXplorer, it lets users search hundreds of thousands of DigitalGlobe satellite images in Peru for signs of looting or construction, or even to look for sites that are hidden beneath the dense cloud cover. You can manipulate photos to highlight (or obscure) parts of the vegetation. And as you get more practice, like any good video game you will progress through levels and get access to exclusive content such as videos or Google Hangouts.

Archaeologist Sarah Parcak, who is with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, funded this platform using $1 million in prize winnings from TED, a non-profit media organization. Among her influences for the platform was Galaxy Zoo, a project that allows the public and scientists alike to classify galaxy types in pictures from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

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"Typically for these crowdsourcing platforms, you have a small number of users that are 'superusers'," she said during press conference on Monday (Jan. 30). Because these superusers do most of the work, the aim of GlobalXplorer is to increase the number of superusers and to decrease the desire to leave the platform out of boredom or other factors.

Parcak added that she doesn't yet know how successful the initiative will be, because it's never been done before. Peru was chosen as the first country because of its archaeological richness (most famous among them being Macchu Picchu) and also because the government is open to alternative ways of studying the sites, such as through the use of drones. A second country may be added later this year.

If all goes well, users will identify sites of interest for archaeologists to pursue, in consultation with UNESCO and the Peruvian Ministry of Culture. To prevent more looting, GPS and other identifying information has been stripped from each satellite image. The site is also available in Spanish to encourage young people in Peru to take part in archaeology - and hopefully, to discourage them from looting the sites themselves.

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Archaeologists searching out GlobalXplorer user-identified sites will keep participants informed in real time, Parcak pledged, using tools such as Periscope, YouTube videos, or more traditional blog posts. For her own team, Parcak said she hopes the project will save hours of time, because looking at satellite imagery is a time-consuming endeavor.

Parcak added that archaeology is potentially a way to combat the "despair and fear that so many people have" in light of changing immigration policies in the United States these past few days.

"We have had throughout history problems with climate change, economic crises, wars, disease, these things happening all at once," she said. "The thing that you see again and again with different ancient societies and culture, oftentimes after periods of crisis, you get resilience and renaissance and re-emergence... Human beings have great resilience and ability to survive challenges. It can give us a lot of hope for the future."

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