Nearly 35 million people across the globe have been uprooted by violence, political conflict and catastrophe. Now the United Nations is partnering with Google in a new effort to keep track of them.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees unveiled on Tuesday a multimedia system to monitor refugees in conflict regions using Google Earth, the internet search giant's global mapping software.
The new system works as a "layer" of multimedia tools that a Web user can place on top of Google Earth's interactive satellite maps. Google Earth has around 300 million users.
The interactive system, available for download at unhcr.org/googleearth, currently includes multimedia information on refugees and the persecution they face in three places: Colombia, Sudan's Darfur region and Iraq.
As a user drags her cursor across each region, she can read about the violence there that forced people from their homes, learn the name and population of nearby refugee camps and watch a series of video reports or photo essays.
"It's designed to narrow the distance -- not just in terms of geography, but also experience -- between refugees and the rest of the world," Claudia Gisiger-Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The agency plans to regularly update the refugee data available on Google Earth with a goal to map each of the world's major conflict regions by the end of 2008. The list is not finalized, but is likely to include Afghanistan and Kenya, said Gisiger-Gonzalez. Later, the agency hopes to introduce a tool that will track the global movement of refugees.
The agency also plans to use Google's technology internally, by creating a database for refugee camp managers and researchers to share information.
But the system could draw attention to highly detailed satellite images of refugee camps in volatile regions, raising potential security concerns for the camp's residents. UN officials admit that deciding what information can be made public and what should stay on the internal system is an ongoing discussion.
"The Web is a challenge because it requires us to redefine all the time what is confidential and what is not," Karl Steinacker, who manages field information and support efforts for the agency, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
It wouldn't be the first time that the search engine's power has raised questions. Last year a US congressional subcommittee accused the search engine of "airbrushing history" for using outdated images of New Orleans that predated the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in their Google Earth maps of the city. Google later updated its mapping to reflect the post-storm coastline.
A spokesman for Google in Germany said it would be the responsibility of the UN agency to withhold potentially sensitive information, such as the name or size of a refugee camp.
"We provide Google Earth for all interested NGOs, and the type of content that they provide there is up to them," Stefan Keuchel, the spokesman, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The new partnership is part of a larger company program called Google Outreach. The effort already includes partnerships with other nonprofits including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, UN Environmental Program and the Jane Goodall Institute. Several groups in Europe are expected to join soon, a Google spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an e-mail. More information on the project is available at google.com/outreach.