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How the Search for Genghis Khan Helped the United Nations Map Refugees in Somalia

National Geographic has been exploring new worlds for well over a hundred years. In the present century, these new worlds include digital worlds—the next frontier of exploration. Take National Geographic’s recent digital expedition in Mongolia. The “Valley of the Khans Project” represents a new approach to archeology that gives us each the opportunity to be a digital Indiana Jones by searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan using the World Wide Web. The very same technologies can also turn us into digital humanitarians in support of the United Nations (UN). Here’s a story about  how National Geographic’s digital expedition in Mongolia inspired the UN during their humanitarian response operations in Somalia.

National Geographic digital exploration of Mongolia. Credit: National Geographic.

More than 6 million square kilometers of satellite imagery is produced every single day. The total surface area of the moon is about 35 million square kilometers. So every 6 days, there is a new moon’s worth of exploration to be done in the digital world of satellite imagery. Question is, how can we possibly explore an entire new moon every week? Do we need to build the digital equivalent of the Millenium Falcon? Do we even have a pilot good enough for this mission? The software to automatically and accurately analyze this vast amount of satellite imagery is still not good enough. So what to do? Turns out National Geographic had the answer all along: crowdsource the expedition.

In their phenomenal project, Valley of the Kahns, National Geographic crowdsourced the  analysis of high resolution satellite imagery in the search for clues to an 800 year old mystery, the location of Genghis Khan’s tomb. Welcome to my world, the world of intrepid digital exploration. The answer to the 3 million kilometer question wasn’t one pilot and one Millennium Falcon. No! The answer was hundreds of thousands of pilots from all around the world flying their own X-wings over the vast virtual landscape of Mongolia in search of Genghis Khan.

I blogged about this awesome project when it was launched and described how we could take this same approach in humanitarian crises. A few months later, the crisis in the Horn of Africa began to escalate, displacing a massive number of peoples West of Mogadishu. So the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) asked me if we could use the same approach as National Geographic’s to estimate the displaced refugee population in Somalia. Why? Because due to Al Shabbab’s terrorist activities, humanitarians could not do this kind of survey on the ground, they too were being targeted and kidnapped. So we needed to take it to the skies and the UN was in dire need of pilots.

Tomnod was customized to support the United Nations in Somalia. Credit: Tomnod.

So we used the same technology that was used for the Mongolia expedition. Called Tomnod, the platform is designed to crowdsource and crowdtag satellite imagery. We obtained free imagery from DigitalGlobe, which was then “sliced up” into thousands of smaller pictures. Each of these, like the one below was then analyzed by digital explorers looking for signs of permanent and temporary shelters.

The satellite imagery was sliced up into small pictures. Credit: Tomnod.com.

Whey found such shelters, they would simply tag the feature with the appropriate icon, just like in the Valley of the Khans. Only when a shelter was tagged by at least three individual volunteers would that data point be shared with the United Nations. This was a great way to ensure some quality control in the process.

The result? Within 120 hours, volunteers created over a quarter million tags after analyzing close to 4,000 individual images, thus yielding a triangulated count of some 47,000 shelters in the Afgooye corridor of Somalia, which the UN could use to estimate the population in the area. To provide context, it took two UNHCR staff over an entire month to do this back in 2010. We did the equivalent in 120 hours.

Tomnod uses a consensus based algorithm to triangulate the tagging. Credit: Tomnod.

But who do I mean when I say “we did this”? I mean the Standby Volunteer Task Force (SBTF), a global network of some 800+ volunteers in 80+ countries who support humanitarian and human rights organizations in times of need. They were the pilots who flew the Somalia Mission for the United Nations after being inspired by National Geographic’s search for Genghis Khan in Mongolia.

Digital expeditions like these can democratize the next frontier of exploration. So I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues at National Geographic to support future explorations into the digital unknown. Onwards!

Patrick Meier is a 2012 National Geographic Emerging ExplorerHe is an internationally recognized thought leader on the application of new technologies for positive social change. He currently serves as Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI). Patrick also authors the widely respected iRevolution blog and tweets at @patrickmeier.

 

Comments

  1. Amir
    Uiguria
    April 21, 2013, 4:51 am

    Unfortunately, in the official history there are many pro-Chinese falsifications about the “wild nomads”, “incredible cruelty of nomadic mongol-tatar conquerors”, and about “a war between the Tatars and Genghis Khan” etc.
    So probably not there looking for the tomb of Genghis Khan – that’s it, and can not find it. Very most likely, it is in other part of Eurasia. As a matter of fact, most of the descendants of Genghis Khan and hisnative nation, living now among the Bashkirs, Kazakhs, Tatars, Uighurs and other Turkic peoples.
    Read a book “Forgotten Heritage of Tatars” (by Galy Yenikeyev) about the hidden real history of Tatars and their fraternal Turkic peoples. This e-book you can easily find on Smashwords company website: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/175211
    There are a lot of previously little-known historical facts, as well as 16 maps and illustrations in this book.
    On the cover of this book you can see the true appearance of Genghis Khan. It is his lifetime portrait, which is very little known.
    Notes to the portrait from the book says: “…In the ancient Tatar historical source «About the clan of Genghis-Khan» the author gives the words of the mother of Genghis-Khan: «My son Genghis looks like this: he has a golden bushy beard, he wears a white fur coat and goes on a white horse…» [34, p. 14]. As we can see, the portrait of an unknown medieval artist in many ways corresponds to the words of the mother of the Hero, which have come down to us in this ancient Tatar story. Therefore, this portrait, which corresponds to the information of the Tatar source and to data from other sources, we believe, the most reliably transmits the appearance of Genghis-Khan…”.

  2. Black Swoone
    Dallas
    August 7, 2012, 8:03 pm

    This kind of technology is starting to make me a little nervous. As a commecial photographer I never thought cameras would be this invasive. I know it’s be used for good now, but that seems to change a lot.

  3. Susan Fox
    July 24, 2012, 8:52 pm

    Why do you or anyone else assume there is a “tomb” (packed with treasure, of course) for Chinggis Khan? “Valley of the Khans” is not worthy of what National Geographic stand for. It’s very western-centric and doesn’t show much knowledge about the Mongols or Chinggis, who said that he didn’t care what happened to his body as long as his nation survived, which it has. Mongols traditionally did “sky burials”, returning the body to the land.
    I’m glad to see the methods developed for such a waste of time and resources are now being put to a very, very good use.