Do-gooders doing Google Earth

The mapping app has become a powerful device for nonprofits with global messages about saving forests--and lives. Images: Google Earth with a cause

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
BERKELEY, Calif.--Three-dimensional maps from Google Earth are giving nonprofits new tools in their efforts to raise awareness of issues like deforestation and genocide.

For example, Mary Ann Hitt, executive director of nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said a collective of grassroots organizations is using 3D maps in Google Earth to show how millions of acres of Appalachian Mountains across four states have been destroyed by mining companies. In a process called mountaintop removal, the coal-mining industry blows off the tops of mountains with explosives to get at coal faster and cheaper, she said. As a result, surrounding areas are buried by pollution and waste, streams dry up and a soot lingers in the air, she said.

So with the help of Google, the nonprofit has built a virtual "national memorial" for 470 topless mountains in the area--marked by half-staff flags--with information and guides on the process of mountaintop removal. The map layer, found in Google Earth's "featured content," also shows historic before and after aerial photos of the mountains; overlay comparisons to illustrate the scope of destruction; and links to first-hand stories and videos from the communities affected by mountaintop removal.

"This has revolutionized our thinking," Hitt said here Wednesday at the Fifth International Symposium on Digital Earth. "It's given us the ability to give the kind of tour of the mountains that we only could give previously to the media or government officials. This gives (us) an audience of 200 million people," she said.

Hitt was referring to the number of people who Google says have downloaded and installed the geography tool--which in the two years since its introduction has captured the imagination of everyone from software developers to government officials. Earlier this week at the Digital Earth confab, Google Earth Chief Technology Officer Michael Jones recalled a quote from President Bush, who has said: "I kind of like to look at the ranch on Google, reminds me of where I want to be sometimes."

google earth with cause

The popularity of mapping tools from Google and rival Microsoft has spurred nonprofits and other organizations to develop "layers" for the service that visually guide people to a cause. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year said it plans to use Google Earth to map out toxic wastelands.

Already, government agencies at the state, federal and local levels are using static and dynamic mapping--to model traffic, crime and weather, as well as model what's happened in the past to forecast for disaster planning. Rebecca Moore, an engineer in Google's maps group who works with nonprofits in her paid free time, said people can expect more geographic visualizations from civil action groups in the coming years.

"Over the next year or two we're going to see a lot of interesting visualizations in Google Earth to educate people about climate change."
--Rebecca Moore, software engineer, Google Earth

"There are several environmental groups using it...(but) over the next year or two we're going to see a lot of interesting visualizations in Google Earth to educate people about climate change," Moore said during the Digital Earth panel organized by Google.

Moore herself used Google Earth to help organize community action in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where a logging company had planned to harvest timber. In September 2005, several thousand Santa Cruz, Calif., residents received an official notification and map in the mail for the plan, but it contained very few details.

So Moore created a virtual layer in Google Earth to map the area in 3D, which turned out to be thousands of acres of timber. She and the community of residents used the tool to add photos and time animations, which showed how neighboring schools might be affected by noise and pollution. That got the attention of California Assemblyman Ira Rushkin, who was concerned about the plan's impact on children and came out against it. The water company, which owned the land, withdrew the plan.

Under the layers of "Global Awareness" on Google Earth, people can also find a map telling stories of chimpanzees from the blog of Jane Goodall, an anthropologist known for her studies of chimps in the Gombe Stream National Park. People can read about Beethoven, a chimp in the Gombe park who disappeared in 2002.

The global conservation group WWF has also built a layer in Google Earth highlighting points around the world that are undergoing dramatic shifts, whether environmental or socioeconomic. People can zoom in to read about the changing face of Las Vegas due to population growth, or Guayaquil, Ecuador, the country's largest city and primary seaport.

Others are using Google Earth to highlight genocide. In April, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum launched a "Crisis in Darfur" project with Google Earth to show satellite photographs of destruction in Sudan, where more than 1,600 villages have been damaged or destroyed. The Google Earth layer contains interactive content such as photographs, data from the U.S. State Department and the United Nations, and eyewitness testimonies from the Darfur community itself.

The Crisis in Darfur project is the first layer of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative, an ongoing collaboration between the museum and Google Earth on humanitarian issues.

"It's about telling stories in new ways," said Michael Graham of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.