06/26/2007 04:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Launched: Google Earth for Nonprofits

Bright yellow chimpanzees are scattered across the hills above the western coastline of Tanzania. One is named Fanni another is named Sandi. Other chimps share names with notable figures in literature, music and science. I can clearly see the valley dug into the hillside and the canopy of trees Sandi is sitting beneath. If I touch Sandi, her entire life flashes before my eyes. Thank you, Google Earth, for yet another awareness-raising experience. It's pretty incredible to get to know Sandi this well.

Sandi is a chimp documented by the Jane Goodall Institute which was just one of the nonprofits and NGOs on display today at Google's New York offices this morning where Vice President for Global Communications, Elliot Schrage, and John Hanke, Director of Google Earth & Maps officially announced Google Earth Outreach. Basically: Google Earth for nonprofits.

In April, Google and the U.S. Holocaust Museum launched the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative in the first use of Google Earth for an NGO or cause. It was brilliant, effective, and very quickly it became obvious to those of us working with NGOs around the world that this was going to be a revolutionary new medium for how information about a cause can be shared and presented. Folks at Google like Rebecca Moore and her team obviously saw that potential too as it didn't take them very long to figure out how to apply the concept to other organizations and global causes. Beyond Dr. Goodall and the Goodall Institute, other pilot partners showing off their newly launched outreach tools included Kathy Bushkin Calvin of the United Nations Environmental Program and Earthwatch President and CEO Edward Wilson.

In conjunction with the aforementioned organizations who have already launched a "layer," Google Earth Outreach is providing tools and resources allowing any organization (which is able) to "quickly and easily annotate Google Earth with pictures, videos, and information to tell compelling stories of their work." Nonprofit organizations can also apply for a grant of Google Earth Pro software (worth about $400) and recipients will receive additional technical support from Google.

Perhaps the most outside-the-box use of the new layering tool I saw was created for Appalachian Voices which focuses on raising awareness of Appalachian mountaintop removal for coal mining. "It used to be necessary to take reporters and decision-makers on day-long tours, first flying over the coal fields and then driving through coal field communities to hear first-hand accounts from local residents. Thanks to Google Earth, a pretty good approximation of that tour is now accessible to anyone who has a computer and high speed internet."

As great as all this is, there are of course some significant challenges. The "high speed internet" requirement speaks to one of them. I wrote a post earlier this week that described the issues of digital divide (in the U.S. only) as it relates to online video and that same issue rings even truer for prospective users of Google Earth. Another very significant barrier to entry is that the vast majority of nonprofit organizations and NGOs simply do not have time or resources to devote to creating these layers for Google Earth. It's a luxury that will likely be available almost exclusively to the big boys for a while.

I should also add that a notably absent feature, to me and others in the room who work in this field, was the ability for a user to take any kind of direct action with the issues through the layers' functionality. Jane Goodall said, "Only if we understand can we care. Only if we care will we help. With Google Earth Outreach, more people have the chance to see, to care, and then to act." I completely agree with Dr. Goodall. Google Earth connected me with Sandi and I learned all about her. Now I want to do something. Unfortunately Google Earth doesn't yet help me take action.

It's a definitely a start, though. I hope the next step for John, Rebecca, and the half dozen brilliant engineers working on Google Earth will be to help me help Sandi. In the meantime; awfully well done, guys.

Ps If you're a nonprofit organization, try posting a volunteer opportunity for a programmer who can help your organization work with things like Google Earth. It's free. Nothing to lose.