Figure 4 Abdul and his family's journey ends at the Kalma Camp, current population 90,000; white tents are visible in the satellite imagery.

Raising Global Awareness with Google Earth

What do you do after flying to your home?

Rebecca Moore
Technical Lead, Google Earth Layers
Google, Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.

What is the first thing most users do in Google Earth? Typically they fly to their homes, navigate around their neighborhoods and perhaps explore potential travel and vacation spots.

While this is a wonderful introduction to the power, utility and even pleasure of using Google Earth, increasingly there are much more interesting applications being launched that leverage the power of Google Earth to help the people, animals and plants of our planet.

As of this writing, Google Earth includes high-resolution imagery (sub-meter accuracy) for more than 30% of the world's landmass and 50% of the world's population. The 3D terrain model is also steadily increasing in accuracy all over the world. Try flying around Switzerland or Hawaii (10-meter horizontal accuracy) or Mount St. Helens (3-meter accuracy). In Africa, we have blended in extremely high resolution (2.5cm/pixel) aerial photographs taken by National Geographic explorer Michael Fay, allowing users to fly in seconds from outer space to see the eyelashes on a camel. Google continues to publish frequent updates to the imagery, terrain and vector databases, increasing our global high-resolution coverage, spatial accuracy and data freshness.

The power and reach of this technology have now been discovered by many non-profit groups, NGO's, governmental agencies, scientists, concerned citizens and indigenous peoples who are engaged in efforts to raise awareness and inspire action on a range of issues: environmental, humanitarian, cultural, educational and disaster relief/response, among others.

Many users have found that by publishing their data and telling their stories within the vivid geospatial context of Google Earth, they've been more effective at reaching the broader public and influencing policy at every level of government. Some already have achieved success at tangibly impacting what is happening “on the ground.” At Google, we believe that technology can be a positive catalyst for education and action, and have committed resources to supporting these groups and efforts in a variety of ways. The following are a few examples of public-benefit Google Earth projects launched over the past year.

Figure 1 “Crisis in Darfur” by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; each flame marks a damaged or destroyed village.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Crisis in Darfur

On April 10, 2007, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) joined with Google in unveiling an unprecedented online mapping initiative aimed at furthering awareness and action in the Darfur region of Sudan. The goal was to enable Google Earth users worldwide to visualize and better understand the genocide currently unfolding in Darfur. Museum staff assembled content—photographs, data and eyewitness testimony—from a number of sources that were brought together for the first time in Google Earth. This information was (and still is) published as a Global Awareness layer in Google Earth, and the content is turned on by default—that is, users of Google Earth will see the collection of “Crisis in Darfur” icons simply by opening Google Earth and flying over Africa (see Figure 1).

The “Crisis in Darfur” content comes from a range of sources—the U.S. State Department, NGOs, the United Nations, individual photographers, and the museum. Also, Google arranged to publish high-resolution imagery for many affected areas in Sudan and neighboring Chad. The high-resolution imagery in Google Earth enables users to zoom into the region to view more than 1,600 damaged and destroyed villages (see Figure 2), providing visual, compelling evidence of the scope of destruction. The remnants of more than 100,000 homes, schools, mosques and other structures destroyed by the janjaweed militia and Sudanese forces are clearly visible. Humanitarian organizations and others now have a readily accessible tool for better understanding the situation on the ground in Darfur.

Figure 2 One of more than 1,600 damaged or destroyed villages in Darfur; more than 100,000 homes have been destroyed.

Also worth noting is that this project was started and substantially developed by a group of volunteers who donated their time and KML skills (Keyhole Markup Language, the file format used to display geographic data in Google Earth). The “BrightEarth” project included Michael Graham (of USHMM, who conceived the idea and led the team) and volunteers Lars Bromley, Declan Butler, Stefan Geens, Mikel Maron, Tim Caro-Bruce and Brian Timoney. (Editor's note: See detailed story.)

Figure 3 The blue line marks the 73-mile journey of Abdul's family across the sub-Sahara desert, from their destroyed village of Shattay (marked with a flame in the foreground) to the displaced persons camp at Kalma.

During their Google Earth presentation to assembled government officials and the media on April 10, the museum told and showed the story of one particular displaced family, from a report by BBC correspondent Hillary Anderson. Abdul and his mother lived in the village of Shattay. One morning before dawn, the attack on Shattay began. The next day Abdul and his family began their arduous three-day walk of 73 miles across the sub-Saharan desert to the displaced persons camp of Kalma (see Figure 3). Due to the extreme difficulties of the journey, one member of the family died along the way. The dangerous conditions of these camps are portrayed in Figure 4.

The reaction to this project has been immediate: it has stimulated extensive worldwide media coverage, traffic to the USHMM website has quadrupled, and reporters and human rights organizations have used the information in these layers to ask more pointed questions.

As President George Bush noted when he spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on April 18, 2007, “This museum cannot stop the violence. But through your good work, you're making it impossible for the world to turn a blind eye. Earlier I saw an exhibit that puts faces on the millions of men, women, and children who have been killed or driven into the desert. I also saw an interesting new venture that you've arranged with Google Earth. As a result of this partnership, millions of Internet users around the world will be able to zoom in and see satellite images of the burnt-out villages and mosques and schools. No one who sees these pictures can doubt that genocide is the only word for what is happening in Darfur—and that we have a moral obligation to stop it.”

Figure 5 The Aral Sea has dropped to one-quarter of its former size (50 years ago), due to diversion of water for cotton cultivation. These images are included in the UNEP layer on Google Earth.

United Nations Environment Programme:
Atlas of Our Changing Environment

UNEP's “Atlas of Our Changing Environment” was first published in hardback in 2005, featuring high-resolution images of areas around the world that have undergone dramatic change over the past thirty years, from receding Arctic glaciers and the vanishing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro to extensive deforestation in the Amazon.

In September 2006, UNEP and Google teamed up to publish this atlas online as a layer in Google Earth. There are now 177 sites around the world portrayed with before-and-after image overlays and explanatory text. The transparency slider feature in Google Earth allows users to morph the imagery back and forth in time, vividly conveying the dramatic changes (see Figure 5).

The project has garnered considerable global media attention. For example, on Nov. 7, 2006, French TV Channel 2 allocated several minutes of their prime-time news program to a series of these before-and-after site visualizations and to an interview with project coordinator Ashbindu Singh. The project has also served as an inspiring example and technical demonstration to other non-profit groups interested in showing before-and-after imagery overlays in Google Earth.

Jane Goodall Institute:
Gombe Chimpanzee Blog

Also in September 2006, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and Google teamed up to publish the first “geo-blog,” a georeferenced Web log of updates about the lives of the famous chimpanzees living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

The “Gombe Chimpanzee Blog” is authored by field researcher Emily Wroblewshi, who is studying paternity among the chimpanzees. Her entries allow Google Earth users everywhere to understand current research findings in the program begun by Dr. Jane Goodall in 1960. Emily is trying to determine if paternal relatives treat each other in special ways.

JGI also created compelling biographies for the chimpanzees, with photographs and video clips that are included in the JGI layer in Google Earth (see Figure 6).

Figure 6 Flirt's biography as part of the Jane Goodall Institute “Gombe Chimpanzee Blog.” Flirt is a daughter of Fifi, who was the last surviving chimpanzee from Jane's early days as a researcher. Fifi had infants from 1971 to 2002. Flirt was her second-youngest. Sadly, Fifi disappeared in 2004.

In order to support this project, Google published new 0.61-m satellite imagery provided by DigitalGlobe (Longmont, Colo.). The new high-resolution imagery clearly shows the extent of deforestation in the Gombe region—lush and green inside the park and dry and brown outside (see Figure 7). The deforestation is a serious problem for the Gombe chimps, as their feeding range outside the park has diminished. It has also led to flooding, landslides and loss of life in villages below the deforested slopes, as reported by Lilian Pintea in the Winter 2005-06 issue of Imaging Notes.

Figure 7 High-resolution imagery of Gombe National Park and environs; the deforestation outside the park boundary is readily apparent.

JGI is using Google Earth in concert with other technologies to portray these issues to the Tanzanian government, as well as to work with local communities to develop land use plans that will establish a network of village-protected forest reserves outside the park.

Figure 8 Mud River, West Virginia, before and after mountaintop removal coal mining.

Figure 9 Illustration of the mountaintop removal blasting process; dynamite holes
visible in the imagery.

Appalachian Voices:
Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

In March 2007, the environmental advocacy group Appalachian Voices joined with Google in publishing a layer illustrating the effects of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

This layer tells the stories of more than 470 mountains that have been dynamited in order to extract coal. Before-and-after image overlays are included (see Figure 8), along with a detailed site tour which annotates the stages of a specific mountaintop removal operation (see Figure 9). In the Google Earth high-resolution imagery, users can see dynamited areas, the giant dragline machine which digs out the blasted material, drinking-water streams blocked by the mining debris, and neighboring communities affected by the mining.

Within the first week after the release of this layer, the Appalachian Voices online petition grew from two signatures to more than 12,000, including signatures and commentary by concerned individuals from all over the United States and the world.

Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging:
Community Action in the Santa Cruz Mountains

In the fall of 2005, a Silicon Valley water company announced plans to log more than 1000 acres of towering redwood trees in the Los Gatos Creek watershed of Northern California—the largest stand of coastal redwoods left in Santa Clara County—in a watershed that supplies drinking water to more than 100,000 people. The logging plan map provided to local residents was a black-and-white, low-resolution sketch that did not convey what was at stake. It was difficult to decipher and the local citizens did not understand it.

On behalf of Neighbors Against Irresponsible Logging, I remapped the plan instead in Google Earth, showing in vivid 3D imagery how close the logging trucks and chainsaws and heli-copters would be to schools, daycare centers and public open space (see Figure 10). The annotation also depicted where endangered red-legged frogs had been spotted and specific locations of magnificent old-growth trees that would be cut.

When this “virtual flyover” was presented at a community meeting, the local residents gasped with recognition. The issues were much more clear. It galvanized opposition to the plan by the community, local policy makers and even Al Gore. The flyover has been featured on TV and radio news programs. As a result of the “organized and informed community opposition,” the plan was withdrawn.

Figure 10 Representation of the Santa Cruz Mountain logging plan that proposes
helicopter logging within several hundred yards of schools and a daycare center.

Although it has now been revised and resubmitted, a second Google Earth project has now been published, which demonstrates that the revised plan is invalid. For more information, see

Figure 11

Additional Projects

Google Earth currently includes additional projects and layers, which can be seen by clicking on “Global Awareness” (see Figure 11):

  • Amazon Conservation Team and Amazon Indians Protecting their Land
  • WWF Global Conservation Projects
  • National Geographic - Elephant Poaching in Africa
  • New Snow and Ice Information
  • International Polar Year
  • Arctic and Antarctic Ice Floes
  • Wyoming Gas Drilling


Google Earth is freely available to everyone around the globe as a canvas on which to portray compelling public-benefit information in a vivid geospatial context. It's not difficult to get started. Just explore KML files created by others. Many groups and individuals have already used Google Earth successfully to raise awareness, inspire action and affect positive change in the world. There are now more than 200 million Google Earth users around the world.

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