Google targets nonprofits with Outreach program

Google has launched a program to help nonprofits use Google Earth to raise awareness of their missions

Google has introduced a program to help nonprofit organizations use its Google Earth satellite mapping program to build Web-based applications that illustrate their mission and advocate their work.

The program, called Google Earth Outreach, is a combination of resources that will help nonprofits use Google Earth, such as video tutorials for developers and online forums where nonprofits can connect, Director of Google Earth and Maps John Hanke, said at an event at Google's New York office.

Google also is making its Google Earth Pro edition available for free to nonprofits that fill out a grant application. The program is usually US$400 per user, per year.

Google is presenting case studies of the applications nonprofits have built using Google Earth on the Google Earth Outreach Web site.

The program grew out of a group of Google employees' "20 percent" project, Hanke said. Google allows its employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects they are personally interested in. After relief workers used Google Earth during Hurricane Katrina to locate stranded New Orleans residents, several employees wanted to use the product for humanitarian purposes, he said.

"That opened our minds to something we never really considered -- that it might be something significantly meaningful in our product, not just [for] day-to-day utility and interesting and fun kind of things," Hanke said.

Google had representatives from key nonprofits on hand Tuesday, physically and virtually, to promote the program.

Most notably, famed wildlife advocate Jane Goodall appeared via video conference from London, where she explained how the Jane Goodall Institute's involvement with Google Earth Outreach is a far cry from how she used technology -- basically a pencil and a notebook -- when she first began her research living among chimpanzees in Africa in 1960.

As part of Google Earth Outreach, the institute has a "geoblog" where users can zoom in and see the places in Africa that Goodall has written about in her books and track the progress and lives of the chimpanzees she has tagged in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. In this way, she said, people can feel as if they are more personally involved with the work she is doing and want to contribute to it.

"It certainly is helping us hugely with our conservation efforts and also enabling us to involve a wider audience of people," she said. "People get really involved, really excited about this. It's like a soap opera for wild chimpanzees."

Edward Wilson, president and CEO of Earthwatch, appeared in person at the event. Earthwatch, a scientific research organization for the preservation of a suitable environment for the earth, also is participating in the Google Earth Outreach program.

Wilson said that the satellite mapping in Google Earth "shrinks the planet" so issues like the ones his organization are trying to spread awareness about become more accessible. Scientists can use Google Earth to zoom in and share information across the globe, so, for instance, "a turtle researcher in Costa Rica can share information with a turtle researcher in Malaysia," he said.

Still, Wilson said, the key for a nonprofit is not just that its workers can find and share information, but that they can illustrate their mission to as many people as possible so they will get involved at a local level in global issues. That's why Google Earth Outreach is a useful tool for them. "Unless we get key stakeholders involved, it's not going to move the dial," he said.

During a question-and-answer session, one attendee brought up problems Google has faced with government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense and other commercial and public entities that are none too pleased with the idea of the average person having easy access to the world's satellite imagery. Indeed, the company's mission to collect and give people access to as much of the world's information as possible has always inspired security and privacy concerns.

For nonprofits that have to consider private interests as well as the public good, global satellite mapping can be a thorny issue, said Matt Merrifield, geospatial technology director for the California region of The Nature Conservancy. His organization works to set aside land to be preserved for environmental and ecological reasons, and often has to work with private landholders who "don't want to see their land on a public level," he said.

However, Goodall thinks that to help spur interest in the global issues nonprofits such as hers are advocating, it's better to give people as much information as possible. And pairing that information with visual representations of the work being done adds a personal element that inspires people to get more involved than they normally might.

"Right from the beginning I wanted to share everything I found at Gombe, and I was criticized for writing popular books," Goodall said. "But if we want to save chimpanzees, forests and other creatures around the planet, this is the way to do it. It's not just to reach into people's brains but into their hearts as well."

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