2016 TED Prize Winner: Dr Sarah Parcak’s Crowdsourcing Space Archaeology

A pioneer in satellite mapping the world's undiscovered heritage sites has a big plan for the future

With millennia of developmental history behind us, much of which has been lost from maps and word of mouth, Dr Sarah Parcak understands the importance of searching for the missing pieces. The space archaeologist and winner of this year’s TED Prize, has pioneered a new way to uncover that which lays buried. Parcak employs infrared satellite imagery to see beneath and between plots of land—all in search of ancient archaeological sites. From her laboratory in Alabama, Parcak mapped an entire Egyptian city. In fact, Parcak satellite-mapped all of Egypt and in doing so discovered 17 potential unknown pyramids, 1,000 tombs and 3,100 settlements. This is just the tip of her work and, with her TED Prize award, she’s planning something that will have a resounding impact.

Since 2005, the TED Conference has awarded an annual prize to one visionary with an idea for a project with large-scale impact. The prize also comes with $1 million dollars (and access to TED’s vast network) to launch such a project. Parcak’s idea involves an app, enlisting hundreds of people and unearthing the world’s hidden treasures to paint a better picture of our collective growth. In essence, she wants to teach anyone interested how to read satellite imagery for signs of ancient history. And she’s figured out a safe way to do so, that also allows for the surveillance of looting.

Interested participants will be able to sign in to the service and undergo a mandatory tutorial. Upon completion, users are given a few select images with a loose location affixed but not GPS info (for safety concerns). Users can then pour over these images looking for something undiscovered. If they do find something, it is flagged and sent to professionals. When confirmation of a discovery occurs, the app participants can follow along with the excavation through a series of social media experiences—including live-streaming.

Since a service such as this can shorten response time from months to a matter of weeks, the benefits are many. One important benefit is simply more protective eyes looking onto already discovered locations, which means less chance of looting. Indiana Jones said, “70% of all archaeology is done in the library” and whether or not there was ever any truth to that, thanks to the TED Prize and Parcak, more of it can take place at home, and by non-professionals who still have the passion.

Images courtesy of TED