Google for Change in Darfur

February 9, 2009, 12:54 PM

April 10, 2007 — -- Can you Google your way to a more compassionate planet?

Google Earth hopes its highly detailed, 3-D satellite images will aid the process in a new effort to utilize the full social and educational potential of its images, which have mostly been used by individuals for personal enjoyment, such as checking out their houses, birth places, or national and international landmarks.

The company is now pairing with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to highlight the crisis in Darfur in graphic detail online, by using Google Earth maps to allow users to zoom in on 1,600 villages destroyed in this conflict, and see the devastation up close.

"The mission of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is to honor the memory of the Holocaust by responding to genocide around the world today," said John Heffernan, director of Genocide Prevention at the USHMM, in an interview with ABC News. "What we are trying to do with this initiative is create a community of the conscious. Our hope is to ignite change, to make people aware as we are faced with this deteriorating situation in Darfur."

In a news conference held in Washington, D.C. this morning, the two groups unveiled this unprecedented online mapping initiative which combines the maps with data and eyewitness testimony about the crisis. The project, titled Crisis in Darfur, is available on both the museum and Google Earth's Web sites, and will enable more than 200 million Google Earth map users worldwide to visualize and better comprehend the genocide currently unfolding in Sudan and eastern Chad.

Users can click on photos that reveal destroyed villages -- highlighting the reality behind daily life in refugee camps, and individuals' struggle to simply survive. There are maps and graphs to chart displaced persons, deaths and illness totals to give individuals a statistical understanding of the scope of this growing crisis. And testimonials, ranging in point of view from Amnesty International officials to eyewitness interviews with refugees, add a personal side to the crisis, bringing a faraway conflict closer to home. "What we've done is provide technology that enables organizations like the museum to leverage the power of the information they collect and accumulate to reach broad new audiences, to move those audiences, to engage them and, hopefully, energize them into action," said Google's Vice President Elliott Schrage at today's press conference.

The USHMM and Google Earth's initiative provides users with access to more than 1,600 villages devastated or completely destroyed by the country's internal violence. This technology, which appears on Google Earth's Web site on their Featured Content page, under Global Awareness, will also allow members to zoom into 133,000 homes, schools, mosques, and other buildings burned to the ground because of the fighting, as well as reveal the extensive refugee and displaced persons camps -- identified by thousands of white tents strewn across the desert on the map.

USHMM and Google officials hope this new initiative gives individuals a composite view of what is going on in Darfur and allows them to see with their own eyes the extent of this crisis.

"The idea is that with this information people will help stir up and create political will among decision makers all over the world to do the right thing," said Heffernan. "It's difficult for people to understand where Darfur is … It's just not on people's radar. Through Crisis in Darfur, we hope to help people make a picture in their head and, once they have that visual, hopefully, make it harder for people to ignore."

Ultimately, according to Heffernan, the USHMM intends to expand its partnership with Google Earth to prevent genocide across the globe. "My personal vision is that this initiative goes beyond Darfur," said Heffernan. "We have this new media, this very broad-reaching tool that we can use to get people to highlight and recognize potential conflict areas -- allowing citizens, governments, and individuals access to information unlike ever before … transforming this tool into a preventative measure, rather than a responsive one."

At today's press conference, Darfurian refugee Daowd Salih put it best. "People around the world need to see what genocide looks like. It's not about numbers," he said. "It's about people."