Activism & Advocacy

You’re never too old to be a space archaeologist

Doris Mae Jones recently moved from Indiana to Ohio to be closer to her sons. And although the 91-year-old has a weekly Mah Jongg game, she still has a lot of time on her hands. So when she heard about GlobalXplorer, a project that would allow her to help archaeologists find lost civilizations right from the comfort of her favorite chair, she signed right up.

GlobalXplorer is the brainchild of 2016 TED Prize winner Dr. Sarah Parcak, who was awarded $1 million to expand her work using satellite imagery to make important archaeological finds, like her 2011 discovery of 17 lost pyramids in Egypt. Taking pictures from outer space helps archaeologists spot ancient treasures, as well as signs of looters. But the earth’s surface is 197 million square miles, and Parcak says less than 10 percent of that has been explored. GlobalXplorer’s innovation is sharing the task of reading satellite images with the crowd — volunteers like Jones, who inspects “tiles” bearing views of 10,000 square-meter plots of land and assesses either the possibility of previous civilizations or the presence of looters.

“I enjoyed it,” Jones says. “I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.”

The web-based platform spent its first year focusing on Peru, which is known for its rich Incan heritage. GlobalXplorer plans to announce the second country it will explore later this year.

Jones considers herself an “amateur paleontologist,” having spent 63 years digging up fossils on her own land. GlobalXplorer gives her the same kind of thrill, without having to get down on her hands and knees. “It’s all in the hunt. It’s like hunting Easter Eggs,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

In one year, Jones achieved the status of super user — or Space Archaeologist in the GlobalXplorer lexicon — by evaluating 50,000 tiles. By contrast, Cheyenne Haney, director of education for the organization, has only completed 1,500 tiles. “It takes some time, even for us,” she says. “Miss Jones, she’s pretty awesome.”

Haney says the leadership team expected seniors to be a key user group, based on the experience of Tomnod, a satellite imagery crowdsourcing platform that has helped map damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico  and find wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. “They have a lot of seniors participating,” Haney says. But the first build of GlobalXplorer didn’t include the zoom and pan buttons that were built into Tomnod, she says, and seniors complained. By the time the next country is announced, Haney says that should be fixed.

Even though the Peru “expedition” is officially over, would-be space archeologists can go to GlobalXplorer, take the 10-minute training, practice on the Peruvian tiles and get prepared for future expeditions. Haney is looking to find ambassadors who can introduce the project to seniors, school groups and others. “We want to build that sense of a community,” she says. “It’s to connect people in Peru to people in Janan. It’s to connect people who are 95 with people who are 17.”

Meanwhile over at Tomnod, volunteers can presently either help with the assessment of hurricane damage in Puerto Rico or help spot Weddell seals.  You can be an environmental activist from your desktop or laptop.

On either website, ample instruction is given. See Sarah Parcak’s TED talk here.

Photo: Sara Parcak and Doris Mae Jones; photo courtesy of Bret Hartman / TED



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