Google, UN team up for refugee mapping project

Online mapping project to direct attention to refugees throughout the world and the humanitarian efforts helping them

Google and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office this week debuted an online mapping project it hopes can direct the world's attention to refugees throughout the world and to the humanitarian efforts aimed at helping them.

The Google Earth Outreach program uses Google Earth and Google Maps to highlight refugee work done by various humanitarian agencies. Participating groups can overlay text, audio and video information onto Google Earth in a layer to allow them to better explain their work, the UN said.

UNHCR's Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees at the U.N., said that Google Earth allows the agency to show its work in a geographical context and to highlight challenges faced by its workers on the ground and how they aim to solve them.

The new Google Earth program has three layers. The first takes users inside three major locales where displaced persons are housed -- Darfur, Iraq and Colombia. The second layer explores issues like refugee health, education, water and sanitation, and includes pop-up windows that explain the specific needs of each location. The third level displays issues at the local level, such as school and other infrastructure needs.

The UNHCR said the project will eventually allow the agency to build a geographic record of ground efforts to aid refugees -- like a cross-border mapping of population flows and the location of displaced people in relation to their origin. The information could be used for logistical planning, the agency added.

"As a photographer, I know the power of images," Afghanistan-born photographer Zalmai, a former refugee, said in a statement. "Combining the many features of Google Earth and Maps with graphics, photos and other timely information from UNHCR staff working in some of the world's most pressing humanitarian crises provides an incredibly powerful way of conveying the urgent needs of millions of refugees in places most of us would never otherwise see."

This isn't the first time that GoogleEarth has been used to highlight a humanitarian crisis.

In April 2007, the US Holocaust Museum and Google launched an online mapping initiative to help educate users about genocide. The first project under the Museum's Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative includes photographs, data and eyewitness testimony from a number of sources about the crisis in the Darfur region of the Sudan.

Just this week, the museum blogs.ushmm.org/worldiswitness/ launched a new layer of that initiative that mapping include posts from people now at risk for or affected by genocide. Initial posts document the horror of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda Africa where it is estimated that between 500, 000 to 1 million people were killed.

Nate Anderson, a blogger at Ars Technica noted that the UN/Google partnership is beneficial because it will graphically illustrate the location and realities of refugee camps to populations that have little understanding of the UNHCR's work.

"As for Google, it's trying to get its tools in the hands of more aid agencies and humanitarian groups, confident that the power of this new way of telling stories will prove a good fit with groups looking to highlight global issues in lesser-known places," he added. "Google certainly has an incredible resource on its hands."

Microsoft, he added, "stands to lose out on being the de facto source for mapping overlays if Google continues to gain mindshare."

If it hopes to prevent Google from becoming "the YouTube of mapping," Microsoft may need to act even more quickly to beef up its online mapping tools, Anderson added.

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Heather Havenstein

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