On 30 January of this year, Sarah Parcak, winner of the 2016 TED Prize launched the Global Xplorer platform she has created with her prize money. Like the many archaeological crowd-sourcing projects on the Micropasts website, Global Xplorer is a crowd-sourcing platform allowing members of the public to take part in archaeological satellite remote sensing from their laptop, phone or tablet.
The heady combination of Sarah Parcak, National Geographic’s own ‘Space Archaeologist’, a TED prize, archaeology and satellite technology has prompted a number of media outlets to report on Global Xplorer, from Forbes to The Guardian. All this publicity means that interested members of the public will soon be working through the imagery on the platform.
But the thought of anyone with a computer logging on to archaeological sites has not been universally welcomed. This recent article on the Cairo Scene website, which has been publicised on social media by the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation, argues that Global Xplorer could be used by looters to identify targets, making the situation worse in countries where protection for antiquities is limited. As someone who works with satellite imagery, I decided to test out Global Xplorer and see if these concerns are justified and provide general review of platform.
Global Xplorer is a straightforward platform. There are several pages of information about the project with videos from Sarah Parcak. Archaeological and cultural details of the countries covered can be found under ‘Expedition’, and there are also areas for donations and FAQs. So far only data from Peru has been included on the platform.
Before you can begin working on satellite imagery you need to register, giving details such as name, email address and a password you generate. Then there is a tutorial explaining briefly what natural and archaeological features look like in satellite imagery and how to identify evidence of looting and avoid false positives. Once you’ve finished the tutorial you begin working on the tiles.
The first goal for users of Global Xplorer is to identify evidence of looting. You won’t be creating a map or identifying archaeological features, but locating traces of antiquities theft for further investigation. Following the tutorial you’ll be shown a 100x100m tile of satellite imagery. The area you need to examine is outlined in white, with a little bit of additional imagery greyed out around the edges to provide some extra context. Depending on whether you can see any evidence of looting or not, you click either the ‘Looting’ or ‘No looting’ buttons and the next tile loads. As you can see I appear to have ended up with a bit of amazon rainforest:
It’s pretty clear that it would be almost impossible for tomb robbers or antiquities thieves to make use of Global Xplorer to further their nefarious activities. In addition to the off-putting effect of registration, the user only sees a very small area at any given time, and it is entirely divorced from any geographic context. The FAQs confirm my assumption that the tiles have no coordinates or other geographically identifying data, and the tiles you are shown appear in a randomised order so you couldn’t even associate what you’ve seen in the previous tile with what you see in subsequent ones. Within the tiles there’s very little information to assist you in identifying the location. Even if a pristine archaeological site appeared inside that white square, at best you might be able to discern it was in the rainforest, in a field or in the desert and next to a building, road or river, but the sheer number of possible locations for each tile is immense. In fact the only way looters would be able to recognise an archaeological site is if they had already been there and were familiar with the terrain, and then we can hardly blame Global Xplorer for the looting.
On the other hand Global Xplorer is quite good fun. It works on your phone or tablet, so you can cover a couple of tiles while waiting for the bus/train/plane. It’s very easy and straightforward and quite relaxing in a strange way. While currently the goal is to identify looting, the ‘Current Campaign’ menu at the bottom of image above suggests that users will move on to identifying ‘Encroachment’ and ‘Discovery’ as the programme rolls out.
So if you have a few minutes and fancy trying it out, its straightforward to learn and easy to use, and you certainly don’t need to worry about antiquities thieves learning anything useful.