VSFS Intern Spotlight: Crowdsourcing Geospatial Research

By Grace Kellet, Northeastern University

My name is Grace Kellett and I am a Virtual Student Federal Service intern conducting research at the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative. When my fellow VSFS interns and I began in September this year, we were given the initial task of checking and refining data collected about sites for the Syrian Cultural Heritage Inventory. In this task we would look to both confirm and add information about each site. What I quickly learned was that it was difficult to collect or even confirm relatively simple information. Many of the sites – such as mosques, parks or cemeteries – are staples of the communities in which they belong. However, pan out to the larger national and (in my case) international perspective, and much of the identifying elements of these places are not formally documented. A name, or even a location at times, cannot be confirmed through a simple search on Google maps. This was a constant struggle for me until I discovered an auxiliary method of information gathering: crowdsourced data.

From my experience with this specific data set, I found that using two open source and crowdsourcing sites, Wikimapia and Open Street Map, in addition to Google Maps was especially useful. There were several occasions when a coordinate location on Google would result in no name or even an indication that anything of note was located there. Yet when I cross-checked the same coordinates into the other two sites, they would confirm the existence of an indicated site. This was particularly useful in identifying the existence of locally-known mosques or churches and unexcavated archaeological sites such as the Umm Al-Qasr ruins.

Umm Al-Qasr ruins Satellite Image from July 4, 2016, with little indication of an archaeological site Google Map Imagery ©2017 CNES/Airbus, Map data ©2017

Umm Al-Qasr ruins Satellite Image from July 4, 2016, with little indication of an archaeological site.
Google Map Imagery ©2017 CNES/Airbus, Map data ©2017

Wikimapia and Open Street Map would at times provide further insight into the nature of a particular site. For instance, on several occasions, crowdsourced input on a site would divulge information on their religious affiliations. This was the case for the Greek-Orthodox Church of St. Eliasin Qatana or the Sunni-affiliated Mosque of Hasan al-Basri in Aleppo.

Occasionally, the information given would lead me to uncover the larger story around a relatively unknown site. When looking up the location of the Beloved Prophet Mosque in Damascus, for instance, the site information revealed a comment indicating that this was the site of an airstrike that had taken place on December 16, 2012. Using that reference, I was able to find further information about the specific airstrike in a New York Times article which reported the event as one of the first government airstrikes to damage a Palestinian refugee neighborhood in Damascus. According to the article, the strike pushed several Palestinian refugees toward the rebel cause.

Umm Al-Qasr ruins Satellite Image from July 4, 2016Beloved Prophet Mosque in Damascus Satellite Image from September 17, 2016, amid airstrike damage Google Map Imagery ©2017 DigitalGlobe, Map data ©2017

Umm Al-Qasr ruins Satellite Image from July 4, 2016Beloved Prophet Mosque in Damascus Satellite Image from September 17, 2016, amid airstrike damage.
Google Map Imagery ©2017 DigitalGlobe, Map data ©2017

With the caveat that it should not be the primary source of information, the use of crowdsourcing can be a welcome addition in researching information about lesser-known cultural heritage sites. I find this knowledge to be helpful as I move onto the case study phase of my internship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *