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UNHCR and Google unveil new map programme for humanitarian operations

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UNHCR and Google unveil new map programme for humanitarian operations

EMBARGOED TO 1100 CET, April 8, 2008
8 April 2008

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

GENEVA - Representatives of Google and the UN refugee agency on Tuesday unveiled a powerful new online mapping programme that provides an up-close and multifaceted view of some of the world's major displacement crises and the humanitarian efforts aimed at helping the victims.

The "Google Earth Outreach" programme gives UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies the ability to use Google Earth and Maps to highlight their work on behalf of millions of refugees and other populations of concern in some of the world's most remote and difficult areas.

Google's outreach programme provides humanitarian agencies with the skills and resources to use Google Earth and Maps to highlight their work to a mass audience. The agencies can overlay text, audio and video information onto Google Earth in what is known as a "layer," enabling them to explain and illustrate their humanitarian work to a worldwide audience.

Unveiling a new UNHCR layer in Google Earth before invited guests at UNHCR's Geneva headquarters, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees L. Craig Johnstone hailed the project as means to educate people worldwide on the plight of refugees and on the humanitarians who help them.

"Google Earth is a very powerful way for UNHCR to show the vital work that it is doing in some of the world's most remote and difficult displacement situations," said Johnstone. "By showing our work in its geographical context, we can really highlight the challenges we face on the ground and how we tackle them."

The new UNHCR layer shows three levels of detail. The first provides an overview of UNHCR itself and takes the user on a journey to three major displacement operations - in Darfur/Chad, Iraq and Colombia. The impact on neighbouring countries, including Sudan, Syria and Ecuador, is also explored, and refugee camp locations are highlighted on the Google Earth maps.

The second layer brings the user even closer to the life of those in exile, exploring such elements as refugee health, education, water and sanitation. Pop-up windows linked to precise geographical points in camps and refugee communities provide written explanations, photos and videos of specific needs and operations. The third level, the "macro-view," takes the online visitor right down to the local level within a refugee camp, allowing examination of schools, water points and other infrastructure found in a typical site. Visit the layer at

The new Google Earth Outreach programme includes grants for licences of the professional versions of Google Earth and Google SketchUp (the 3D modelling software) plus text and video tutorials on how to use these powerful tools.

UNHCR's technical experts say that as it grows, the Google Earth programme will allow UNHCR and its humanitarian partners to build and share with each other a visual, geographic record of their joint efforts on the ground to help refugees. This could include, for example, cross-border mapping of population flows as well as the location of displaced persons in relation to their places of origin - useful information in logistical planning for eventual repatriation operations.

Also speaking at the Geneva event was the Afghanistan-born photographer Zalmai, himself a former refugee.

"As a photographer, I know the power of images," Zalmai said. "Combining the many features of Google Earth and Maps with graphics, photos and other timely information from UNHCR staff working in some of the world's most pressing humanitarian crises provides an incredibly powerful way of conveying the urgent needs of millions of refugees in places most of us would never otherwise see."

Rebecca Moore, head of Earth Outreach at Google, said: "Charities and NGOs are constantly looking for new ways to make people aware of the issues they are trying to solve. Putting information into its geographical context makes it possible to show the complexity and the effect of the work of organizations such as UNHCR."

To date, 350 million people have downloaded Google Earth around the world. There are 13 layers in the Global Awareness section of Google Earth and thousands of KML (Keyhole Markup Language) layers have been created by individuals and organizations around the world.

More information on Google Earth Outreach can be found at The website includes tutorials, case studies, a KML showcase and other online resources. Swiss-registered charities and NGOs can apply for pro grants of Earth and SketchUp under the programme.

Further information available at

The High Commissioner for Refugees is mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. UNHCR is a two times Nobel Peace Prize winner.