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To prevent archaeological looting, scientist wants to crowdsource

Parcak is the winner of the TED Prize 2016, and she will use her prize money of $1 million U.S. to implement a platform where everyone can participate in this work. Parcak’s plan for an online platform calls for millions of people on the Internet to do what she does, analyze satellite imagery for clues to archaeological sites. This way, she believes we can uncover humanity’s past much quicker.

During her TED talk announcing the platform, Parcak said,”I wish for us to discover the millions of unknown archaeological sites across the globe. By building an online citizen science platform and training a 21st century army of global explorers, we’ll find and protect the world’s hidden heritage, which contains clues to humankind’s collective resilience and creativity.”

In the past, Sarah has successfully identified pyramids buried under Egyptian cities, and has even written a textbook on “space archaeology,” titled Satellite Remote Sensing for Archaeology. She is now using the same methods to detect looting and the destruction of archaeological treasures due to the ravages of war. For example, Parcak estimates that a large portion of the old city of Syria’s Aleppo has succumbed thanks to the war between the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army.

Parcak is also a vocal critic of the Islamic State’s practice of looting antiquities to fund their terrorist activities, and is a member of a network of people who have been closely watching satellite imagery to detect looting in Iraq and Syria’s estimated 5000 archaeological sites. ISIS has looted ancient palaces, tombs, churches and even mosques of Sufi and Shiite sects, whose religious doctrines are different from the Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam that ISIS follows.

She explained to NPR how the portal will “game-ify” archaeological research through crowdsourcing. “This is going to be a super high tech version of Google Earth. My team and I are going to process lots of satellite imagery and they’ll be put on this platform.”

Users will be shown satellite imagery of a piece of land between 20 by 20 and 30 by 30 meters in size. A legend alongside the image will indicate whether this is an old and known site, or a new, unknown one. Users will also be assisted by examples of various types of sites, such as ancient Egyptian houses. Once a certain number of users tag an image as having something of interest, Parcak and her team can focus on the image and give it an expert run-through.

Parcak plans for the system to be up and running by late summer 2016, in desktop versions and through mobile apps.

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