Anyone who has ever downloaded Google Earth knows that exhilarating swift plunge when you zoom in from a vantage point outside the planet, past continents, countries, street grids, and buildings, until suddenly, there’s your childhood home. This unique online journey is now being recognized and harnessed as a force for good, using the all-seeing eyes of modern surveillance to shine a light into the dark secrets of injustice.
“Crisis in Darfur” is a section of Google Earth that superimposes documentary evidence of genocide and information about the Sudan conflict onto satellite imagery of the region. Place markers in the shape of flames and tents dot the geography like digital gravestones, linking to information, imagery, and firsthand testimony: more than 13,000 people displaced from Nertiti, a village in West Darfur; 133 buildings destroyed in Arrama Bir in North Darfur. The screen reveals one horrific story after the other. “The Janjaweed came in the morning, broke the shops, and took the money, the sugar, and the goods,” reports a woman from Kutum, in North Darfur. “They killed 32 people in their houses.” Rather than overwhelming viewers with flat numbers—300,000 dead, 2.5 million people driven from their homes—the new technology connects the universal and the personal in the form of an online narrative.
“Crisis” has become emblematic of a trend in which nonprofit groups are using the newest web technologies to present, in one place, satellite imagery, statistics, and video that can expose atrocity and prompt action. Amnesty International is using satellite imagery on “Eyes on Darfur,” its website that launched last June to keep watch over specific villages in the region—Hashaba, Deleba, and Selia among them—and to serve as visual proof of the brutalities being committed. Other initiatives are joining them, from Jane Goodall’s Gombe chimpanzee research in Tanzania to Appalachian Voices’ campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining. This broad scope offers designers an unprecedented opportunity to convey the complex dimensions of a given issue in a compelling format that accounts for history and the area’s physical landscape as well.
“To be able to tell people what genocide looks like through photographs and through eyewitness testimony is very important in terms of trying to engage people to do something about it,” explains John Heffernan, director of the Genocide Prevention Initiative at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which partnered with Google Earth in April 2007 to launch “Crisis in Darfur.”
Of course, just because a site looks good doesn’t always mean that it functions effectively as a tool for activism. To do so, it must be designed so users can easily click through to act—write letters, join a group, post comments, send a donation, forward information to others—in response to the information shown. In the same way that a commercial site is designed well if online shoppers find it easy to complete their purchases, activist platforms are successful when they convince users to undertake some kind of meaningful action.
To see a project in Google Earth, users must download a “layer,” and within these layers, organizations and individuals can choose the set of visual elements that annotate the digital landscape, such as the icons and pop-up balloons used for entries. But the interface itself, and the method of navigating through it, are determined by the Google Earth software. Google’s characteristic design philosophy is on display: Like its search function, the screen provides a wealth of information and encourages autonomous navigation. As such, “Crisis” captures the enormity of the horror, but the result is a visual cacophony. If a visitor downloads numerous layers—and chooses to display them simultaneously—the screen becomes awash in hundreds of tags and annotations, a representation of information that Edward Tufte would denounce.
Amnesty takes a somewhat different approach in “Eyes on Darfur.” Like the Holocaust Museum’s initiative, Amnesty’s project has an extensive multimedia chronicle viewable using satellite imagery—which includes statistics, photographs, and video testimony. But “Eyes on Darfur” also presents a curated, simplified array of information in a stand-alone Flash site that runs on a regular browser. The project features satellite evidence that documents violence with before and after images of 13 villages; it also highlights 11 areas that, according to Amnesty, are facing imminent threat of attack, and encourages viewers to keep watch over these communities.
The elegant, minimal Flash interface of Amnesty’s site was designed by Citizen, a San Francisco firm that works on projects with an altruistic purpose. Amnesty wanted the site to be useful for legislators and foreign policy officials, and Robin Raj, Citizen’s founder and executive creative director, says that the firm created a design that would make the visual and written information accessible while conveying credibility and objectivity. “We wanted just a simple, clean environment,” says Raj. “There should be no gratuitous content from the design and content standpoint.”
In addition to presenting a more manageable set of information, the Amnesty site’s interactive design is also much more efficient in the way that its “Take Action Now” links send users directly to a ready-to-mail letter. The equivalent “How Can I Help?” link in the Google version contains only contact information, not a ready-made letter. Autonomy in this context could dilute the will to act.
Amnesty International’s “Eyes on Darfur” website depicts how quickly
the Shangil Tobay region for Internally Displaced Persons (refugees) has grown because of fighting elsewhere. There were few structures on March 10, 2003 (top); there were nearly 3,000 by April 10, 2006 (bottom).
Despite its limitations, Google Earth is quickly becoming the medium of choice for many activist organizations; these groups are drawn to the platform’s wiki-esque template that, like other web 2.0 apps, can be customized and adapted. Since launching in June 2005, the browser has amassed more than 250 million users, and Google is continually refining the software: Flash and video capabilities were added last September, with more features on the way.
While Google Earth and its satellite capabilities provided the springboard for the Amnesty and Holocaust Museum projects, YouTube is the touchstone for another newly launched activist site, the Hub, which allows individuals and advocacy organizations to post video and build campaigns about human rights violations. Shepherded by Witness, a Brooklyn-based organization that develops media strategies to counter injustice, the site emerged from a survey of activist groups that said they lacked a central forum built around video footage. “The idea behind the Hub is to have that element, to make it more specific, and to link it to human rights and to
the mass mobilization of the internet,” says Sameer Padania, Hub manager at Witness.
The Hub enables users from anywhere in the world to upload video footage—recorded on devices ranging from professional video cameras to cell phones—onto the site. After posting, organizations and individual users can provide links to background information and news articles, start an e-petition, or take other online and offline actions. Users can also create their own customizable home pages on the portal, much like YouTube “channels” or Facebook profiles.
Crafting the architecture of the Hub was perhaps the most elaborate aspect of the design process, because the site needs to be usable with both high- and low-bandwidth connections. CivicActions, an Internet consultancy, developed scenarios of how media producers, NGO staffers, activists on the ground, and newbies would all interact with the site. “It’s really meant for utility,” says Henri Poole, CivicActions’ managing partner.
Determining how to most effectively deploy the interactive design vocabulary for activist purposes is an ongoing process. Rebecca Moore, manager of Google Earth Outreach, notes that the scope and language of Google Earth—rules for effective communication, standard principles for best practices, situations that can benefit most—are still being refined. “We need [our own] Strunk and White,” she says.
Amnesty, too, is figuring out ways to expand the grammar of the new technology. Jeremy Nelson, crisis prevention and response associate at Amnesty International, says that future projects might include a site that would bring a public eye to secret detention facilities and another that would show the environmental damage caused by extracting natural resources.
Digital media enables people to witness and participate, whether commenting on a blog, curating video clips, or sharing stories and conversation with distant correspondents. Chris Michael, Hub coordinator at Witness, is optimistic that these tools can be applied to progressive causes as well. “We’re at a technological frontier that can take us much further,” he says.
Jeremy Lehrer is a contributing editor at PRINT and a freelance writer who writes about design, sustainability, and spirituality.