Visitors to Google Earth awoke to a new crisis in their virtual world last week: Darfur is burning, just as it is in reality.
Google created Crisis in Darfur, a collection of maps, photos, and videos of the region's strife assembled by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum along with other groups. It's turned on by default, alongside far less intense multimedia overlays such as a collection of U.S. hiking and biking trails.
The Darfur layer, which resides in Google Earth's Global Awareness folder, is the only Global Awareness layer turned on by default. Others documenting planetary problems--climate change, wildlife conservation, Appalachian mountaintop removal--are turned off by default.
"If you fly over Africa, there's no way to avoid seeing Darfur," says John Heffernan, director of the Genocide Prevention Mapping Initiative at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Genocide in Darfur has claimed 300,000 lives and left 2.5 million homeless, he says.
Whether the Sudan or nations that support it, like China, consider this a problem remains to be seen. But Google has faced backlash if Google Earth mirrors the real world too closely, or not closely enough. Two weeks ago, Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., accused Google of "airbrushing history" by reverting to satellite imagery of the Gulf Coast before Hurricane Katrina.
How far will Google venture into geopolitics? Heffernan hopes it will push further, helping his organization highlight potential genocides as well. Says Heffernan: "The idea is to prevent it before it happens."