Google Earth gives more detailed information on destruction in Darfur

Crisis in Darfur 2

I first covered Crisis in Darfur over two years ago.

Google and the US Holocaust Museum are now providing more detailed information through Google Earth of atrocities on the ground. As Google notes in its Google Earth blog,

Now the Museum is providing, through its partnership with Google Earth, the most detailed picture to date of the scope and nature of the destruction that occurred during the genocide in Darfur. That thousands of villages were destroyed has been known for some time; these new data document the true enormity of the destruction.

The blog entry goes on to say that,

The web is making it easier to take part in bearing witness to the worst crimes on the planet. Now, with millions throughout Sudan still at serious risk of violence, we must follow through on the more vital task- putting pressure on the international community to help create sustainable peace throughout Sudan. The perpetrators of mass violence in Sudan and elsewhere know that the world is watching.

It is disappointing to see that Google bandies the term genocide, especially in reference to Darfur, without contesting its validity. Such a contestation does not take away from the need to bear witness to and bring to justice perpetrators of atrocities on the ground. Google points to a vital point – the divide between knowing and acting, or the divide between bearing witness and the political will necessary to act against perpetrators. These are vexed questions, for which visualisation along the lines of Crisis in Darfur contribute to the resolution of by rendering complex data, spread over time, more easily accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, even if they choose to disbelieve and question. An informed debate on atrocities is far more desirable than denials and allegations in the absence of information.

I wish the same degree of detail was available for the Vanni region in Sri Lanka, to ascertain the degree to which civilians were killed by the LTTE and Government at the height of war earlier this year.

Google Earth in the browser. So what?

I’ve been working on Google Maps (GM) quite a bit lately to map incidents and trends related to humanitarian access, election violence and human rights. It’s exciting to note that Google has now released a Google Earth (GE) plug-in for browsers that allows for a richer, 3D experience provided you have the bandwidth to spare.

A recent BBC Click story put the number of those who had downloaded Google Earth in the hundreds of millions. But the story fails to note how many of those who downloaded it actually use it regularly and of that subset, how many use it to view the more serious layers available for it (on climate change, on refugees, on genocide) instead of just looking at the roof of their home from space or walking down virtually through the same roads they would travel on in real life…

My experience with GIS with the NGO sector in Sri Lanka is that no one really has heard about it! I’ve been trying without much success to introduce it to the work of HR and humanitarian organisations with a large local footprint for close upon two years, but the significant human resource (and financial) investment that needs to go into data manipulation, analysis, plotting and sustaining that kind of operation is not something that has convinced organisations to embrace this. So what you find are the more hobbyist non-specialist GM / GE activists like moi, who use it with what they have in the hope that by example and by its use in advocacy, more people will see its benefits. (The interest in CMEV’s elections violations maps, the first of their kind in Sri Lanka, suggests that this could be the way forward in getting more widespread awareness and use of mapping for advocacy) .

And I may be the only one, but I find GE sometimes an overkill and hard to use. I find that the GM API’s offer more flexibility in this regard particularly for web integration and web based advocacy, but don’t have the programming knowledge myself to use leverage them, having instead to rely on coders who are already pressed for time with paid deadlines.  

The new GE web browser plug-in may help bring in a lasting “wow” factor to map based advocacy, with as the Google LatLong blog notes, with just a single line of code.Only one problem. Only Windows is supported at the moment.

When the frack will these organisations realise that not everyone runs, or cares to run, Windows?

Anyone interested in pursuing the pros and cons of GE / GM should read Paul Currion’s excellent commentary here and the paper referenced on it.