Space Archaeologist Wants Your Help To Find Ancient Sites : All Tech Considered Sarah Parcak uses satellite imagery to identify hidden sites. The winner of the 2016 TED Prize now plans to invite everyone to help her locate historical treasures.

Space Archaeologist Wants Your Help To Find Ancient Sites

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Sarah Parcak is a space archaeologist. Some people have called her a modern-day Indiana Jones. She uses satellite imagery to find looted burial sites. She's found lost pyramids and thousands of ancient settlements in Egypt. And now she wants your help. She just won a million-dollar prize from TED to get citizens all over the world involved in her work, and she's with us now to explain. Welcome to the show.

SARAH PARCAK: Thank you. It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: What's the project? Explain how everyday people can get involved in the kind of archeological discoveries that you've built your career on.

PARCAK: So what we're going to be doing is building an online crowdsourced, citizen science platform to allow anyone in the world to search satellite imagery to find sites and help protect them.

SHAPIRO: I've looked at a lot of Google maps in my life. I've never seen an undiscovered burial mound.


SHAPIRO: How do we do this?

PARCAK: So this is going to be a super - like, a super high-tech version of Google Earth. My team and I are going to process lots of satellite imagery, and then they'll be put on this platform. And users will be dealt a small card from a deck no more than 20-by-20 or 30-by-30 meters in size, and they'll actually get to look at real processed satellite imagery. They'll be doing good science. And there will be lots of clues and keys off to the side to help them identify whether they're seeing a pyramid or at tomb or a new site.

You know, the idea isn't just that we're developing this for people in the West. Eventually, we want to have a language part of the site so people can log in, and it will be in Arabic or Urdu or Chinese, really to engage as many people as possible with exploration because everyone in the world has a smartphone these days.

SHAPIRO: How many sites are you talking about including in what you're calling this deck of cards, this game that people can play?

PARCAK: We don't know yet what country in which we'll be starting, but to be honest, it doesn't matter. The ultimate dream is to map the entire world. I know that's pretty (laughter) bold and ambitious.

SHAPIRO: But there aren't, on Earth, archaeological sites in every part of the world, are there? There must be some...

PARCAK: Oh, yes, yes, everywhere. But you know...

SHAPIRO: Really?

PARCAK: Yeah, but you know what's crazy? We don't know how many archaeological sites there are in the world. No one has ever done a tally before.

SHAPIRO: So eventually somebody will be looking at Wyoming while someone else is looking at the Brazilian Rainforest and someone else is looking at a remote corner of China. And maybe they'll find an archaeological site, and maybe they won't.

PARCAK: Yeah. I mean, the crowd is going to be our filter for separating signal from noise and satellite images. And if there's simply nothing there, then, OK, fine. Enough people say nothing is there. Nothing is there. But some places where we don't expect to find anything, we're going to find a lot.

SHAPIRO: What do you think is going to entice people to join in this project? Is it just a desire to have a little piece of "Indiana Jones" action or to be able to call themselves space archaeologist?

PARCAK: I think part of that - but also, you know, think back to when you were a little kid. I mean, who didn't love playing in the sandbox? You're giving people skin in the game of discovery, and whether we need a bit of the romanticism of "Indiana Jones," whether we're speaking to people's inner-tech-nerd-geeks or people's inner-history-buffs, I think there's something in this for everyone. And that's really the point, you know? We want to make this to be as friendly a user experience as possible and just get everyone really excited 'cause ultimately, we're answering the big questions about who we are and where we've come from. And the fact that we can get the world to be a part of that is pretty exciting.

SHAPIRO: That's Sarah Parcak talking about her worldwide campaign to turn us all into space archaeologists. Thanks for talking with us.

PARCAK: Thank you so much.

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