Using Google Earth To Save the World

By Joseph Walker

Google hired Rebecca Moore to build software but she's ended up trying to save the world.

As head of the Google Earth Outreach program, Moore, 56, travels the world to meet with nonprofit advocacy organizations and teach them how they can use Google mapping tools to visualize--and thus buttress--their policy arguments.

Among dozens of other projects since the program launched in 2007, the Outreach team has helped the Jane Goodall Institute to visualize disappearing populations of chimpanzees in Tanzania and shown an indigenous Brazilian tribe how to photograph illegal logging in the Amazon rainforest and upload the photos to Google Earth.

Moore herself spearheaded the first effort to use Google Earth to fight for a cause. A trained computer scientist, Moore in 2005 became interested in Google's new Earth product, a computer program that lets users tour a virtual 3D image of the entire planet. She began emailing Google engineers to report bugs in the program and suggest new features. Eventually, the company hired her.

Moore became Google's lead engineer in creating so-called "layers," which allow videos, photos and other kinds of information to be interwoven with the geographic images. Not long after she started, she learned that a local logging company planned to cut down portions of the Redwood forests near her home in the Santa Cruz, Calif., mountains.

Notice of Logging

The notice of the proposed logging that Moore and her neighbors received was complex and unclear, Moore says. So she decided to use Google Earth to create a visual representation of what the logging would do to the woodlands and presented it at a community board meeting. "It completely galvanized the community because by seeing the plan in 3D imagery it was suddenly obvious what the serious problems with the plan were," she says. The plan was scuttled.

Having succeeded in one cause, Moore decided that she had found her 20% project, the Google perk that allows employees to spend a fifth of their time working on projects not directly related to their day-to-day duties. "I took the opportunity to expand the definition of my job," Moore says.

She began recruiting other Googlers to spend their 20% time working with non-profits like Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization fighting the destruction of mountain tops in the process of coal mining. By 2007, Moore was given permission to turn her side project into her full-time job and Google Earth Outreach was born, joining a venerable list of 20% time projects later turned into products that include Google News and Google Reader.

The next year, a young woman named Karin Tuxen-Bettman joined the Outreach team as a geo data strategist. Like Moore, Tuxen-Bettman, 34, had diverse interests. She'd studied economics as a Carnegie Mellon University undergraduate before earning a master's degree in public policy and management and going on to get a Ph.D. in environmental science at the University of California, Berkeley. She had always been infatuated with geography and computer mapping and was looking for a way to combine that with environmental policy expertise.

Combine Passions

Her work on the Outreach team allows her to do both at the same time, she says. "Don't be afraid to combine two different passions into one career," she says. "I was going to go into government and do environmental policy but I found mapping and changed my course."

Among Tuxen-Bettman's favorite endeavors was the effort to bring Google Street View, which allows Internet users to look at photographic images of most urban locations in the U.S., to the Amazon rainforest. Her team put cameras atop a speedboat and glided down the rivers of Brazil. "The idea of lending these pieces of Street View equipment to nonprofits had never been done before, nor had it been done in a natural ecosystem," she says.

The Outreach team is careful to note that Google itself is not becoming involved in political or policy advocacy. They see themselves simply as enablers.

"We're not actually taking sides," Moore says. "What we're doing is providing a platform for authoritative sources to tell their side of the story, to present data in a way that can take the whole world on a virtual guided tour to a place in a much more immersive fashion than was possible before."

Write to Joseph Walker at

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