Declan Butler, reporter This is the personal blog of Declan Butler, a senior reporter at Nature. All views expressed here are mine, and not those of Nature. Contact me at

April 18, 2007

Bush commends Darfur Google Earth layers; I recount the history of the project

Filed under: Blogging,GIS,Google Earth,Open data,Uncategorized — admin @ 9:11 pm

For what it’s worth, Georges Bush tonight commended the Darfur layers in Google Earth built by a group of volunteers (including yours truly), and endorsed by Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. On tonight, I tell the story of how this project evolved.

To read more of that history, see below:

Published online: 1 January 2006; | doi:10.1038/news070416-11

BrightEarth project shows up dark deeds

Google Earth is now being used to advocate for human rights and highlight the tragedy in Darfur, says Declan Butler.

Declan Butler

The BrightEarth project, which I have been a part of since its outset in 2005, resulted from an ad-hoc collaboration between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Google and a motley crew of outside volunteers (that’s where I come in) including geeks, mapping experts and human-rights professionals.

It was the brainchild of Michael Graham, a research associate at the museum and an expert in international affairs. After Google Earth was launched in June 2005, he had what he describes as an ‘aha!’ moment, realizing that it offered a powerful new way to advance advocacy of global human rights and humanitarian issues. He was right.

Graham took his idea, dubbed ‘BrightEarth’, forward with backing from Matt Levinger, the director of the museum’s Academy for Genocide Prevention. Lacking funds, Graham turned to volunteers to build a proof-of-principle pilot project. A few networking emails and Skype teleconferences later, he had a small virtual team to make it work — I got involved because of my experience creating a Google Earth map of the spread of avian flu (see Nature’s Google Earth page).

By November 2006, the team had together whipped up something impressive enough for the museum to officially adopt, host, polish and update the ‘Crisis in Darfur’ application (see ‘Who volunteered what’). Great news, as volunteers can only do so much for so long.

Google also agreed to come on board, making the layer come up by default in new downloads of their program (the first time they have ever done that), and contributing enormously by purchasing high-resolution imagery of much of Darfur. This allows users to zoom in and see direct evidence of the genocide, with burnt huts in villages appearing as charred circles.

“BrightEarth envisions a world in which humanitarian and human rights information is visually engaging, global in scope, and as easy to access and display on a home computer as the latest football scores,” says Graham. That should help human rights professionals and policy-makers as well as the general public.

Who volunteered what
The volunteer team included Stefan Geens, who blogs about Google Earth on Ogle Earth, and who managed among other things the BrightEarth project website.

The work of creating the map layers was shared out among me (Declan Butler); Mikel Maron of WorldKit and GeoRSS fame; Tim Caro-Bruce, a programmer for Amazon’s; Lars Bromley of AAAS; and Brian Timoney, an ex-US marine who now runs a mapping consultancy.

Others chipped in to further the wider BrightEarth project, including Paul Currion, a humanitarian consultant, and Firoz Verjee, a researcher at the Institute for Crisis, Disaster & Risk Management at George Washington University. Numerous individuals across the United Nations and other agencies also contributed advice and data.

Andria Ruben McCool, a former employee at Google, and whose family include Holocaust survivors, helped to promote the project within Google. Much of the core data, such as roads, refugee camp numbers, destroyed villages and so on was provided by the UN Humanitarian Information Centre for Darfur.

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