Friday, February 10, 2012

Protecting Archaeological Sites from Looting: What Can Google Do to Help?

Jason Felch, lucky dog, will be speaking at Google today about "crowdsourcing a solution to the illicit antiquities trade." Sounds promising, though too vague to evaluate before the fact. If the idea is just to put the power of the crowd to work monitoring auction-house catalogs and eBay, however, that is not going to solve the problem of market-driven looting of archaeological sites. Not that catching Sotheby's or the occasional antiquities dealer holding stolen pieces is without value; the market needs this kind of policing. But the market is global, and most of it is not going to be visible to the crowd. Moreover, the antiquities most in need of protection, unexcavated ones, by definition lack the photographic information (or any other information) that Google is designed to share.

Google might, on the other hand, assist in a different mobilization of crowd-policing, by creating in-country means for locals to report looting in progress to their antiquities police. Something like that, on the model of the successful neighborhood watches for petty crimes in South Korea (discussed elsewhere in this blog), could and should be developed to supplement the capacity of under-resourced antiquities police in all countries.

That, though, does not strike me as a Google-ish project either.

The most important way Google could help stop the illicit digging of archaeological sites, as I have argued, would be to provide antiquities police with real-time, or at least very frequently refreshed, satellite imagery of archaeologically rich areas -- imagery analyzed automatically by Google-designed data analysis programs, one hopes -- that would help pinpoint areas where looting is surging. Such imagery would have come in very handy in Iraq during the 2003-2008 period, if only to shame the US for allowing massive looting during its occupation. It would also come in handy in Iraq today,according to the Iraqi government:

Ali al-Shallah, chairman of the committee on culture, tourism and antiquities in the Iraqi parliament, said the government has put regaining looted Iraqi antiquities and securing the country's museums and archaeological sites at the top of its priorities.

"The spread of those sites across vast unmarked areas of the country makes the provision of total security for them in the traditional way almost impossible because we would then need huge numbers of security men and vast physical and financial resources," he said.

"Therefore the government, and as part of its campaign, will approach advanced countries to help Iraq in this respect by providing technical expertise and supplying it with modern monitoring equipment that employ satellites for surveillance and follow up," he added.

That would be true of other countries as well, of course.

1 comment:

Shawn Graham said...

You might be interested in a small project I'm working on, using the Ushahidi/Crowdmap platform for this very issue: