Google Gives Earth Developer Tools to UK Charities

Google is building momentum behind its Earth mapping software by expanding a program that gives free development tools to U.K. charities.

Google Earth Outreach was launched in the U.S. last year but has since been expanded to the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland, and as of Thursday, the U.K., said Rebecca Moore, head of the program.

Nonprofit organizations and charities are eligible for free licenses for the professional version of Google Earth, which costs US$400 for a one-year license, and SketchUp, software used for building 3-D models that can be integrated with Earth's satellite and topographical imagery. Also included are tutorial and technical support.

Google Earth Outreach got its start after organizations approached the company to see how they could use Earth to illustrate their work. Since then, those organizations say they've gained a higher profile for their causes as well as an easier way to graphically portray their work.

That is achieved through creating Keyhole Markup Language (KML) files, which are used by the Google Earth, which is essentially a geographic browser. A KML file can pinpoint places on Google Earth's satellite imagery, as well as integrate text, audio and video to provide more information on that location. The files -- which turn up in Google searches -- can be uploaded to organization's Web sites, which can then be opened by Google Earth.

Google is featuring some of the best examples of the use of KML files in its Global Awareness Folder on Earth. Two new KML files, also referred to as layers, were added there on Tuesday. One is for WaterAid, an international group that focuses on sanitation and hygiene education in poor countries.

WaterAid has created a KML layer that portrays the organization's ongoing projects in places such as Uganda, where three sites are highlighted with blue water droplets. Projects under way there include rainwater harvesting and creating composting latrines. When a cursor hovers over the droplet, an explanation of the project pops up along with a photo.

The growing popularity among charities using Google Earth has also lead to a demand for more features. Moore fielded a question from one group that is using the satellite imagery to plan expeditions in rural areas. They said it would be useful to know the date when particular satellite image was taken.

Moore said Google is looking into that and other recommendations. Right now, about 30 percent of Earth's imagery is high-resolution, but usually in urban areas. NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and charities often work in poor, rural areas. Moore said Google is studying ways it can upgrade to higher resolution imagery.

Google would also like to incorporate Earth into social-networking platforms. "It's obviously coming," More said, but still in its early days.

Representatives of organizations, many of which are already using Google Earth, came to the company's offices in London on Thursday for the launch.

They included Chief Almir Surui, whose Amazon tribe is threatened by logging. Surui, whose presentation was translated from Portuguese, said they're using Google Earth to create a 50-year sustainment plan and to highlight how illegal logging is fast encroaching on their reserve.

Google Earth shows Surui's reserve as a smooth green patch, but it's surrounded by discolored swath of clear-cut land. "We don't want to use Google just to show what is happening but to prompt solutions," he said.

Also on hand was noted conservationist David Attenborough, who said the use of Google Earth for environmental education is "a huge and valuable weapon."

"We don't have to rely on soft words, deceiving words of politicians," said Attenborough, whose productions with the BBC set the standard for wildlife documentaries. "We can see."