06 April 2011

Citizen scientists

On Monday, the Washington Post ran a little story about the use of public outreach in scientific endeavors. Granted, their example of Albert Lin, "explorer" and research scientist at UCSD, searching for Genghis Khan's tomb sounds neither archaeological nor scientific, but bear with me:
Through a Web site called Field Expedition Mongolia, which Lin and his colleagues developed jointly with National Geographic, volunteers are helping sift through 85,000 high-resolution satellite images of Mongolia. 
Every time volunteers log in to the site, they are shown some of these images. An online tutorial instructs them on how to look for particular objects and tag them as “roads,” “rivers,” “modern structures” or “ancient structures.” They can zoom in and out and scroll in all directions.
This project alone apparently garners 7,000 "citizen scientists" who all work for no compensation. How?:
“We found that we could make something that was engaging enough to inspire people to participate without having to pay them,” says Lin. “This is the part of citizen science that is most interesting to me: How can we motivate people to dedicate their time?”
By making it fun or game-like, of course. Apparently Lin was inspired to create an online expedition linked to his real one back when the Mechanical Turk came out at Amazon. Other projects have similar frameworks too like EteRNA (which my husband has been a happy participant with) and the North American Bird Phenology Program.

Apart from the fun factor, participants in this Khan project enjoy the thrill of the hunt and being a part of a larger project. As one user remarked:
“It’s one of those things where you’re adding your piece, and it’s about knowing that you’re something that’s much bigger than yourself, no matter how small the involvement.”
In case you are wondering, Lin does "ground truth" all dominant tags, which means he goes out to Mongolia to check out all the features consistently tagged as roads or structures, for example. Sometimes the identifications are way off, but other times (the article notes), really cool things have been discovered like a 3,000-year-old Bronze Age tomb.

What does this mean for archaeologists? Perhaps another avenue by which we can truly reach out to the public and have them involved with our research. While you may not consider John Q. Public as a primary stakeholder in your dissertation about archaeological landscapes in the Syrian Jazirah, if you step back and think about the tax payer dollars that went into your NSF grant, perhaps he does have a right to be somewhat involved in your work. Hell, I'd be happy if anyone on the "outside" was even remotely interested in my work!

I am not trying to bring the Ivory Tower crashing down or undermine all the years and money and toils I went through to become a specialist in archaeology. I'm not saying that a housewife from Ohio is going to be seriating my pottery. But wouldn't it be fun to have a huge group of people monitoring Google Earth for evidence of new looting at archaeological sites in Iraq? To sift through declassified 1950s satellite imagery of Syria to identify ancient roads, canals and cities? To enter information from 100-year-old artifact recording sheets into an online database? Talk about "citizen power!"

What does my non-archaeological readership think? Would you have the time, energy, and motivation to participate in archaeological projects like these?


  1. I'm not sure how we could apply a program like this to archaeology. It seems like we would need much higher resolution satellite imagery to really make it work. It's a great idea, though.

    Also, this isn't a new idea. The SETI at Home project has been using computing time from the idle home computers of subscribers for nearly a decade now. Galaxy Zoo is much more similar, though. There, citizen astronomers look at photos of galaxies and identify their shape. Galaxies usually go through more tha one viewing and the consensus is recorded. They've had great success with it.

    Thanks for the post! Certainly thought-provoking.

  2. Hi Chris, thank you for the reminder about SETI at Home. I too was a participant in that, way back when!

    There has actually been a lot of discussion the last few years about the use of Google Earth in archaeology, particularly to track incidences of looting. Despite many critiques (i.e., security issues, lack of time series for images), most archaeologists who are using Google Earth for research purposes find it incredibly useful. Daniel Contreras and Neil Brodie both think it is a useful outreach tool as well. Check out their brief article in the SAA Archaeological Record: http://digital.ipcprintservices.com/publication/?i=39291&page=1&p=33.

    Adrian Myers also has a short summary of Google Earth for archaeologists: http://digital.ipcprintservices.com/publication/?i=47726&pre=1&p=9


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