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Electrical Engineer Explores Mongolia, and You Can Too

San Diego, CA, November 1, 2010 -- Luke Barrington is a Ph.D. candidate in the UC San Diego Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) – not the typical background of someone who might find himself trekking through Mongolia as part of a National Geographic archaeological expedition (see Calit2 news story). But there he was this summer – after developing the core functionality of the expedition's online, human-computation website that gave the public at large a chance to “tag” potential historic sites on high-resolution maps of the area.

 

Pictured: Luke Barrington (left) and Albert Yu-Min Lin

"We were trying to spot anomalies, but until we had people examine the data, we didn’t know what those anomalies might look like,” recalls Barrington, who works in the Calit2-based Computer Audition Lab, led by electrical engineering professor Gert Lanckriet. “Would they be circular, square, man-made, natural? We knew we needed subjective, human intuition to crack the problem, especially since there was so much data and at such a high resolution that every pixel represented one meter."

As visitors to the National Geographic used the UCSD-designed tagging system, the ground expedition in Mongolia was able to download the data and act on it in near real time.

"Every morning we’d use the satellite modem in our ger [portable dwelling] to download new data from the virtual explorers,” says Barrington, who is a key participant in the new UCSD-National Geographic Engineers for Exploration program. "We'd look for clusters of tags around interesting locations, load the coordinates on our GPS devices and then jump on our horses to go check them out."

Later, back in the lab, the scientists analyzed the gathered data using modern digital tools, including digital image processing and Calit2’s HIPerSpace wall, a massive video wall where the search lights up in real time.

For Barrington, the experiment in human computation was a resounding success. "A lot of people wrote to thank us, saying they had always wanted to be an archaeologist and this gave them an opportunity to be one," says Barrington. “Other people told us they got involved because they wanted to know more about Mongolia, and our project motivated them to check out books from the library. Some people even sent us satellite images they had stitched together using Photoshop."

Adds Barrington: "There are millions of people every day on the Web. If we can get one percent of the people playing ‘Farmville’ every day to figure out instead how to map the structure of the human brain or the coral reefs of Australia, then that’s a worthy goal." 

 

(Story written by Tiffany Fox from Calit2).

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