Google Earth maps become venue for helping world

Socially minded outfits use the company's globe-mapping software to illustrate plights of refugees, others in need.

Can Google Earth help save the world?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced a new partnership with the search engine last week. The goal: To use the company's globe-mapping software to illustrate the plight of parts of the planet's population.

Google Earth, a free, virtual-globe program from the search engine company, lets users zoom in on locations around the planet. Users can also use special programs known as layers, which organizations can build to incorporate video, text, or other interactive features.

Under an outreach program, Google has been populating its virtual globe with socially minded projects from organizations such as Greenpeace, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and UNICEF. Six such layers have been launched in the past two weeks.

Click on the United Nations' "visit a camp" button in Google Earth, for example, and an online depiction of the globe spins and zeroes in on a satellite view of a refugee camp in Chad. There, visitors learn about the refugees who have fled to that country from western Sudan's Darfur region. Click on a button and users can find out how much money it costs to install, say, a new water source at the camp. Click again and users can donate that amount.

"The great thing about Google Earth is it gives you that ability to be there," says Tim Irwin, a spokesman for the UN organization. "We're hoping to take something that might be a little abstract for some people and make it very real."

Rebecca Moore, manager of Google Earth Outreach, says she is hoping the software can be used by organizations on a larger scale.

"This sort of immersive experience can lead to greater understanding, greater compassion, and a desire to help," she says.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum launched "World is Witness," a layer that traces a recent trip to Rwanda to learn about the 1994 genocide there.

Last year, the museum was the first nonprofit organization to launch a Google Earth layer. The museum credited the program for increasing traffic to its "What Can I Do?" page from 2,500 visitors a month to more than 50,000.

"It has been hugely helpful in terms of our outreach efforts," says John Heffernan, director of the museum's Genocide Prevention Initiative.

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