Google visual tool helps digest data

Building a movement based on cold, hard facts doesn’t always work. If it did, groups like the David Suzuki Foundation would probably have all the ammunition needed to mount compelling campaigns against environmental wrongs.

Building a movement based on cold, hard facts doesn’t always work. If it did, groups like the David Suzuki Foundation would probably have all the ammunition needed to mount compelling campaigns against environmental wrongs.

But the non-profit organization, and a host of others across Canada, hope a newly available tool will bolster their efforts by adding a visual flair to otherwise tough-to-digest data.

The program, called Google Earth Outreach, offers free tools to harness the Google Earth and Google Maps services and high-quality satellite data. For several years, non-profit groups in the United States, Europe, Brazil and Africa have taken Google up on the offer and now Canadian organizations are eager to get on board too.

“People really understand issues visually. If they have strong visuals they can much better interpret scientific information or environmental information and this new relationship with Google will allow us to unlock our data,” said Faisal Moola, the David Suzuki Foundation’s director of science.

“We hope these tools will help citizens to be far more engaged.” A team of Google experts, including Google Earth Outreach project head Rebecca Moore, are in Vancouver this week to educate and mentor a group of organizations on the program and how to get the most out of it.

Moore said it’s already being used by the U.S. Geological Survey to map seismic hotspots in real-time and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, who was awarded an Oscar for the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” has used the software for climate change presentations.

“(We thought), could it be a better tool than text and PowerPoint to convey what was at stake?” Moore said of the original vision for the program.

It’s also important that small organizations on a local level will be able to raise significant issues with the tool, she added.

“Maps are local and local people often know more about their landscape than so-called experts thousands of miles away,” Moore said.

“We cannot expect that governments have all the answers — or that local people have all the answers — but what’s exciting about our tools, I think, is they offer the promise of creating a more fact-based and data-driven dialogue between communities and governments, to seek the best solutions to some of the most challenging issues we face.”

One of the first Canadian projects using Google Outreach is an interactive tour of the boreal forest, starting with a satellite view of the area from space before swooping down for a closer look.

The David Suzuki Foundation is using the program to visually map the consequences of urban sprawl and the economic and ecological costs when trees, fields and wetlands are wiped out.

“The problem has been that having access to these high-resolution satellite images and the technology … has only been the domain of governments and corporations with very deep pockets — and all of that is going to change,” Moola said.