Keeping an eye on the crisis in Sudan's troubled Darfur region just got a little easier, thanks to a new satellite-mapping service offered by Google Inc.
Now anyone with a high-speed Internet connection can zoom in on satellite images of any of the 1,600 devastated villages and get detailed information provided by the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.
The collaboration is an effort to raise awareness about the three-year-old conflict that has killed more than 200,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million people by giving ordinary people access to images generally available only to spies, diplomats, and heads of state.
Nobody questions whether Google Earth's new service is – in the specialized terminology of the Web – "cool." The question is: Will it will make a difference?
"It is an important contribution that makes it a bit easier for the average citizen to get his or her head around the enormity of the crisis," says John Prendergast, senior adviser at the International Crisis Group in Washington and an expert on Darfur.
"It's our hope that by combining this up-to-date satellite imagery with authoritative data and evidence from the ground in Google Earth we can make it harder for people to stand idly by when genocide happens,' " said Lawrence Swiader, spokesman for the Holocaust Museum, at a press conference.
But how up-to-date are the images? They are not in real time. Google Earth's images are photographs "taken by satellites and aircraft sometime in the last three years" and "updated on a rolling basis," according to Google's website. The Holocaust Museum's website says the satellite imagery of Darfur and Chad was taken between 2003 through 2006.
Also, aid workers in or near Darfur who might be in the best position to use satellite imagery to keep tabs on their projects often don't have the speedy Internet access that Google Earth's service requires. Government officials in Sudan are famously thick-skinned about Western criticism about Darfur, which they regard as an internal and spontaneous ethnic conflict. Will Google Earth succeed where Condoleezza Rice and actress-activist Mia Farrow have failed?
"The problem in Darfur is not a lack of information, and it's not a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the problem," says Peter Kagwanja, a senior analyst at the Human Sciences Research Council in Tshwane, South Africa. "[The problem is] a lack of action by the international community," he says.
"If this is updated day by day, and you can detect that something is happening, then it might stop [Sudan] from doing some things, because you do things differently if you know that someone is watching you," says Mr. Kagwanja.
The problem with satellite technology, Kagwanja says, is that it can only show the physical signs of conflict, not the motive behind it. "The question is whether these pictures might play into Khartoum's propaganda of portraying this as armored clashes between communities, as spontaneous clashes and not a genocide financed or directed by governments. This is a question that Google Earth cannot answer."
Google Earth's new service comes at a time when international journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to cover the unfolding tragedy in Darfur. Jonah Fisher, the BBC's Sudan correspondent, has been told his work permit will not be renewed when it expires Friday.
He ran into trouble with the government in November when he traveled to the Darfur border with Chad to report on atrocities committed by janjaweed militias there.
Mohamed Guyo, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, says he would like to see similar systems developed across Africa where press freedom is often limited.
"In any conflict situation, access can be very difficult for journalists," he says. "It can be difficult for journalists just to get into Sudan, let alone to move freely once they are there, so this tool is very important and it ensures that we can keep abreast of what is going on."
Sudan strictly controls access to Darfur. Journalists must obtain a travel permit before flying to the region – a process that can take weeks.
In November, all access for correspondents was halted and it was only in March that journalists found their applications to visit Darfur were once again being approved.
Bea Spadacini, of the aid agency Care International, which works throughout Sudan, said Darfur's problems needed a political solution to be hammered out on the international stage, but that Google Earth could help keep up pressure.
"It's a fascinating tool in terms of raising awareness and showing the scale and extent of what is happening in Darfur for people who are interested and who want to be involved," she said.
Yet one NGO official, who requested anonymity, told the Monitor that Khartoum is using Google Earth itself. "They are using Google Earth to intimidate NGOs in the Darfur area. They go up to NGOs and tell them, 'We are using Google Earth, we can monitor your activities.'"
Find Darfur on Google Earth
1. Go online to: http://earth.google.com/download-earth.html. Click on 'Download Google Earth,' and wait for the software to be downloaded.
2.Open the program; in bottom-left corner, click open tabs 'PrimaryDatabase,' then 'Global Awareness,' then 'USHMM: Crisis in Darfur.'Check the box next to 'Darfur' so markers appear over the region.Double-click the word 'Darfur' to automatically zoom in on the region.
3. Use mouse or navigation tools in top-right corner to move around the map.