At an event in Google's New York offices on Tuesday, the company unveiled a new initiative to make its Google Earth geography software a more accessible tool for nonprofit organizations.
"We're now officially launching a program called Google Earth Outreach," said John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps. "Google is stepping up and validating this as a bona fide program that will be staffed in our group."
The new Outreach program came about, according to Google executives, because the company saw the diverse range of ways that the software was being used. "We just completely didn't see the majority of uses for Google Earth," Hanke said. "I think it's blown away everybody on the team."
Nonprofit uses, particularly those pertaining to environmental and humanitarian causes, have proven to be one of the most prolific uses for the software. "We think that the technologies we're developing can be an important catalyst for education, for sharing information, for advocacy, to address global and local issues that affect everyone around the world," said Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of global communications and public affairs.
Organizations can now apply for grants for the Google Earth Pro program, which normally costs $400 per person per year, as well as technical support for its Keyhole Markup Language, which Hanke described as "the HTML of marking up the Earth. It's pretty easy to use," he added, "but it's a new thing, so it needs to be explained."
The wildly popular, information-heavy Google Earth software has not been without critics who have suggested that perhaps it's unwise to make so much detailed mapping data freely available over the Internet.
In response, Google has repeatedly stressed that the benefits of the Google Earth software outweigh the drawbacks. Over the past year, different organizations have utilized the tool as a way to promote tourism, animate the spread of a hypothetical virus and highlight architectural marvels.
In April, Google formally partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to create downloadable map layers to help visualize the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.
It was the success of the Darfur layer, which Schrage described as "an incredibly vivid, powerful way of informing people what is going on in a faraway part of the world," that ultimately convinced the company to devote more Google Earth resources to the nonprofit initiative. "We believe that Google Earth can revolutionize the way people see the world around them," he added.
The announcement featured a videoconference appearance by legendary activist and humanitarian Jane Goodall, whose Jane Goodall Institute has been using Google Earth as a tool for some time now.
"When I began in 1960, my tools consisted of a paper and a pencil," she said to the audience. "That's putting the Jane Goodall Institute into a whole new era, and it's a very, very exciting era...it's certainly helping us hugely with our conservation efforts." Thanks to Google Earth, the Jane Goodall Institute now has a "geoblog" that's "a soap opera for wild chimpanzees."
Hanke said near the end of the event that footage of the conference will later be uploaded to the Google-owned YouTube video-sharing platform.