Discovering new technologies and materials for EO in archaeology at the Google Earth Engine User Summit in Dublin

This is Francesc and Arnau with our first -shared- post! It is perhaps best to start with a brief introduction: we both joined the TwoRains team in 2018, to work specifically in the Remote Sensing section. We are each working on separate but complementary MSCA-IF projects, Francesc working on MarginScapes and Arnau working on WaMStrIn. Following in the wake of the TwoRains project & team, we have been working closely with Cameron and Hector to build on their impressive results (here and here) using the platform Google Earth Engine -hereafter GEE.

GEE is an online platform that combines a multi-petabyte catalogue of satellite imagery -that means many thousands of freely available satellite images!- with planetary-scale analysis capabilities thanks to the implementation of web-based interactive algorithms running on Google cloud computing platform. All of this means that it’s fast! GEE operates in a quite straightforward code editor that runs in a JavaScript -or Python- environment. There are plenty of tutorials and code examples on the web to start working on.

The Foundry theatre at the Google headquarters, Dublin
The Foundry theatre at the Google headquarters, Dublin

In mid-June 2018, Hector and the two of us attended the Google Earth Engine User Summit 2018. The event was held at the impressive Google headquarters at the heart of Dublin, and for us it was a unique opportunity to have a glimpse inside one of the biggest corporations at the forefront of the latest technological advances. It was also an opportunity to participate in an event which was not organised according to the usual academic conventions that we archaeologists are used to. The Google team tried hard to create a relaxing work environment, facilitating the easy interaction between participants. They were of course very interested in showing us how Google technology can improve our work – and how many Google products you use in a daily routine?

Talks about GEE’s impact during the Summit
Talks about GEE’s impact during the Summit

The Summit was also a unique opportunity to meet a large stimulating -and interdisciplinary- audience with a shared interest in EO data & analyses. There were scientists from different backgrounds and fields, but also a large representation of NGO’s, private business and corporations. The programme and some of its content can still be viewed here, and a nice video recap of the event is available here. The Cambridge team contributed with Hector’s 3-min lightning talk – which marvelled the audience with our TwoRains research using GEE. Yes, of course there’s a video!

Relaxing -but intense- GEE hand-on training
Relaxing -but intense- GEE hand-on training

During the Summit we also attended hands-on training sessions that introduced us to new GEE concepts and code editing. We also had the opportunity to directly talk with the GEE developers team and get specific feedback from them. The Summit also promotes the development of small collaborative projects -what is called a “Hackathon” in the high-tech jargon-, so we ended up with a kind of “archaeological hackathon”. Luckily for us, the archaeological team during the event -and during the lovely night atmosphere & beers that followed each day in Dublin – was rounded out by our colleague Louis Rayne from Leicester University.

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Overall, the Summit -including our little hackathon- contributed to expand our EO capabilities and our GEE coding skills, and just a few months later, the team has started to publish a new wave of results – please have a look at the last open access paper by García et al. that has just been published in the journal Geosciences. This paper uses GEE to explore the morphodynamics of the Indus alluvial plains and the 1909 flooding of Dera Ghazi Khan in Pakistan (blog coming soon).

The Summit’ archaeological team
The Summit’ archaeological team

Stay tuned for us here – more updates are coming soon!

Francesc & Arnau