Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 17:59 UK

Google Earth's voice for refugees

The work of aid agencies captures the public's attention during crises like Burma's recent cyclone and China's earthquake, but their day-to-day work around the world can often go unnoticed. David Reid investigates how Google Earth is helping them get their message across.

Sudanese refugees
The UNHCR's work with Google Earth is helping people tell their story
Most of us, thank goodness, will never know what it is like to flee from our homes and seek the help of an organisation like the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR.

But in a bid to help people understand the sometimes desperate plights of those who have suffered experiences like this, the agency has put itself on Google Earth.

Specifically it has created a layer within Google's planet simulator, which documents UN projects involving refugee camps.

The layer contains place marks which contain images, videos and interviews with refugees.

"Google Earth is, we think, an appropriate place to show this," says UNHCR's Karl Steinacker.

The intention is to give the 350 million people who have downloaded Google Earth an insight into what daily life is like within a camp.

In particular it hopes to highlight the lesser-known consequences of the world's numerous conflicts, such as the Iraqi refugees who have fled to Syria or the 3m displaced people in Columbia who have fled the long-running war there.

Refugee stories

Some have asked whether drawing attention to the plight of refugees could also jeopardise them. But the UNHCR's chief spokesman Ron Redmond says not.

"We always get the permission of individual refugees," he says.

A screenshot from Google Earth showing refugee information
The global awareness layers allow users to look at the issues in detail

"The thing you have to remember about refugees is that they may be in a country of asylum. They themselves may be safe, but they've got family and friends who are still back in their country of origin who could be subject to persecution," he adds.

The agency is not the only one to feature on Google Earth.

Many others have developed their own layers to highlight particular issues.

For example, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum used the system to detail attacks on villages in the Darfur region of Sudan; it gave added weight to those who argued that what was happening there should be described as "genocide".

This kind of use of Google's technology puts the company in a position where it could be seen as siding politically with the organisations featured in a partciualr layer.

"We don't take a position or a side in the views expressed by the organisations," says the company's Rebecca Moore.

"We are looking for issues of significant public importance, where the organisation is probably the best in the world.

"We would like to have a broad coverage in different areas - humanitarian, environmental, public health, disaster response and relief - a wide range of areas where presenting the content in Google Earth really helps," she adds.

Iraqis use internet to survive war
13 Feb 07 |  Middle East


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