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With a gift from Google, Canadian activists get on the map

A forestry company that decided in 2005 to cut down 400 hectares of redwood forest had no idea that its toughest opposition would come from inside one of the world's Internet giants.

Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., was a 30-minute drive from the proposed logging site, and the company had just hired a young computer scientist named Rebecca Moore, who was upset at the prospect of losing some of the tallest and oldest trees on the planet.

"The plan was sent out as a very sketchy public notice with a very grainy map that no one understood," Ms. Moore said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

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"I remapped it in full 3-D satellite imagery on Google Earth and presented it to the community and to the local politicians and to the media," she said. "And it sort of galvanized the campaign to stop the plan because it turned out that the plan was illegal."

From that act of environmental advocacy, the Google Earth Outreach program was born. In the past seven years, it has helped organizations and community groups around the world tell their stories by providing free access to the mapping and satellite technology of the largest international Internet company.

And on Wednesday, for the first time, Canadian non-profit groups will use it.

"We have been working for two years to prepare for this launch in Canada," said Ms. Moore, who heads the program.

Representatives of nearly 50 Canadian environmental advocacy groups, social justice organizations, aboriginal communities and schools are being trained in Vancouver this week to use Google Maps and Google Earth to create geographic illustrations of their messages. They overlay Google's maps and satellite images with data from their own spreadsheets to depict such things as the location of first nations communities, caribou migrations and the spread of diseases such as AIDS.

The groups were picked from hundreds that applied. Google received help in the selection process from Tides Canada, which helps charitable organizations that are working to achieve a healthy environment and social justice.

On Wednesday, two completed Canadian projects that use the Google mapping technology will be released on the Internet. One from the Suzuki Foundation will be about putting a value on land, and a Pew Environment Group video focuses on Canada's boreal forest.

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It's one thing to say that the Canadian boreal forest is the largest intact forest ecosystem on earth, Ms. Moore said. Google Earth allows Internet users to "fly in and say, 'Oh, here's where the caribou migrate, here's where billions of birds migrate and nest, here's where the aboriginal communities live.'"

The Pew project was created in conjunction with the Canadian Boreal Initiative, whose executive director, Larry Innes, calls it a validation of the importance of the forests issue.

"It's a very visual way for people to relate to an area that, for most of us, is not immediately accessible," Mr. Innes said. Without Google, he added, a similar project would have been prohibitively expensive and difficult.

Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has used Google Earth Outreach to depict the effects of climate change. Actor Ted Danson has advocated for the protection of oceans, and actress Sigourney Weaver has narrated a tour of the Amazon. A project that exposed the effects of coal mining on Appalachian mountaintops led to many of the mines being put on hold or stopped.

But Ms. Moore bristles at the suggestion that Google is engaged in advocacy. Any registered charity can have access to the technology, she said.

"Notwithstanding my personal start on all this, we don't actually take a position on any of these issues. We don't know enough," she said, adding that Google is simply "giving everyone a common platform with much more detailed information to come to a wiser solution."

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Ms. Moore said: "We did this so we can sleep well at night."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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