Eco-Mapping the News With Google Earth

April 16, 2008

One of the best parts of the environment beat is getting out in the field. Now you can bring "the field" (whether it's your town or the whole world) to your audience through interactive maps. In many cases, you can create great interactive and even collaborative online maps with basic technical skills, using free or cheap tools.

One of the most popular, compelling, and powerful free pieces of Web-enabled software is Google Earth. This program combines Google search with satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3D buildings to create vivid fly-through experiences. You can add your own data, text, multimedia, and links to stored points on a Google Earth layer to create a unique experience of the news that people can either browse or take a guided tour through.

Learning to create Google Earth maps and content is an increasingly valuable skill that can not only broaden your environmental journalism, but also make you uniquely appealing and valuable to news organizations. So if you want a cool, fun skill that will keep you employable for years or decades to come, start playing with Google Earth.

Many people, news orgs, and organizations have used Google Earth as a creative publishing platform. To explore these creations, download and install the Google Earth software (PC, Mac, or Linux). Then go to Google's KML Gallery or the Google Earth community (free registration required), where people share the Google Earth content they've published using Keyhole Markup Language (KML).

To view a map, download the KML file and open it in Google Earth. Here are some video tutorials explaining how to use Google Earth's many features.

Why bother? Google Earth is amazingly popular. As of February 2008 this program had 350 million users worldwide. Also, the KML files that you use to layer information in Google Earth also can be displayed via a Web browser or mobile format via Google Maps (KML tutorial).

Even if you don't publish your own Google Earth maps, this tool can produce excellent images and animations to augment your print, online, or TV coverage.

A few examples:

  1. HUMAN IMPACTS TO MARINE ECOSYSTEMS, from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Recently highlighted in Science, Feb. 15, 2008, this stunning Google Earth map offers detail on oceans rather than landmasses. This backgrounder explains how the map was made and includes an animation of the map in action.Contact principal investigators.
  2. VANCOUVER SEA LEVEL RISING, by Sierra Club BC: "Illustrates the destruction that would result in Vancouver if sea levels rose by six meters. Polygons represent a vast area of suburbs, including the international airport, that would be completely destroyed."
  3. NY TIMES NEWS. This Google Lat Long mashup adds a layer to Google Earth that can be found under the "preview" menu that maps the location of current NY Times stories, updated every 15 minutes. The Times logo appears at every story location. When you click on the logo, a popup window shows the story headline and summary, with a link to the story on NYTimes.com.
    • Leslie Rule of the Center for Locative Media shows how this mashup works in this video, and claims that any newsroom could learn to do this with a single day of training, thus creating their own layer of data for Google Earth. While the NY Times example showcases all their news, not just environmental stories, a news org could create layers by beat.
  4. IVORY WARS, a multimedia-laden Google Earth map layer from National Geographic. Great example of how to connect an interactive map with several kinds of storytelling. Includes automated tours to guide you through the data to tell different stories, and timeline animations. It all connects back to a series of National Geographic articles.
  5. MALARIA RISK MAPS, by the Malaria Atlas Project. One consequence of climate change is that once-tropical diseases are climbing northward and southward. This initiative published two Google Earth files for two common strains of malaria. According to the Google Earth blog: "The files contain placemarks of the data and they are colored according to how recently the cases were reported. Most recent cases (2001-2006) are colored red, oldest cases are colored green (1984-1990)." Project. Contact.

More examples are to be found in the Google Earth Outreach Showcase for Environment and Science.

Ready to get started? Check out the Google Earth tutorials.