04 April 2012

Crowdsourcing Week: Valley of the Khans Project, Mongolia

Crowdsourcing is going to play a big role in archaeology's future. This week I'm bringing you four projects that use it to harness the enthusiasm of ordinary people to fuel innovative research. 
National Geographic
The Valley of the Khans Project  is using non-invasive methods to map and discover archaeological sites in a remote part of Mongolia traditionally considered the homeland of Genghis Khan. Led by UCSD researcher Albert Lin, the project relies on a combination of high-tech remote sensing with a huge amount of free unskilled labor.

Procrastinators with a computer (or 'Citizen Scientists' as the project calls them) can go to the National Geographic website and scan high-resolution satellite photos, tagging interesting features like roads, rivers, ancient structures, and modern features. Lin explains how it works:

The interface is easy and fun to use, and it's fascinating to see the variety of Mongolian landscapes: deserts, deep forests, rivers, steppe. There's plenty of empty images but a surprising number of features to find. So far 16,000 volunteers have placed over one million tags on 785,000 image tiles. That's several years of drudgery, virtually for free. Go over to NatGeo and check it out!

The key to getting good results with crowdsourcing is repetition. The 'average' person doesn't spot everything, but show the same image to a hundred people and their cumulative responses will catch almost everything. Once interesting features are identified, the research team is using a host of high-tech contraptions - including electro-resistive tomography, ground-penetrating radar, and a remote-controlled, six-blade helicopter (!) - to ground truth them. 

The 'hexacopter', probably the most ridiculously high-tech archaeology gadget ever (Nat Geo)
The era of the lone researcher sitting at a desk is coming to an end. This here is the future of archaeology: non-invasive methods and public participation.  

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