How a Nonprofit Clears Land Mines With a Google Map and Trowels

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

An attendee uses the Google Earth booth during the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. Close

An attendee uses the Google Earth booth during the Google I/O conference in San Francisco.

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

An attendee uses the Google Earth booth during the Google I/O conference in San Francisco.

Most people use Google Maps to get directions. Luan Jaupi uses Google's software to help prevent his colleagues from getting their legs blown off.

Jaupi is the information-technology officer at HALO Trust, a nonprofit that specializes in identifying and helping to clear land mines in war-torn countries. Since 2006, the group has used Google Earth to plot mine fields and track clearance efforts.

The U.K.-based organization celebrated its 25th anniversary last week at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. During a speech at the event, HALO founder Guy Willoughby said his 8,000 staff members should successfully clear all land mines in many of the 14 countries and territories it operates in within five to 10 years.

"The big aim is never to reach our 50th birthday," Willoughby said.

At the event, Google and HALO introduced a new website that hosts a map highlighting the nonprofit's work in Kosovo. While people living in Kosovo, located in southeastern Europe, would benefit from having this information accessible, few villagers can see the map, given the lack of Internet connectivity. The site is geared toward partner organizations, prospective donors and curious Web surfers, Jaupi said in an interview.

Companies pay for Google's Earth and other mapping services, but the search giant has given grants to HALO and other do-gooders. Peter Birch, the product manager for Google Earth, said in an interview that Save the Elephants is another grantee that uses the software for a noble purpose: tracking elephant migrations to protect the animals from poachers.

In addition to getting access to a premium geographic-information system for free, HALO gets a direct line into Google, Jaupi said. Google's Birch said it takes customers' feedback on how to improve its products into consideration. HALO sometimes asks Google to update its satellite imagery for areas that are out of date, Jaupi said.

"In developing countries, you have topographical maps from the 60s, 70s, and they're outdated," Jaupi said. Another plus with Google Earth: "You don't need a university degree to use it."

Technology is an important element in minefield operations, but its use is typically limited. Hekuran Dula, HALO's operations officer in Kosovo, doesn't carry a tablet into the field. He and his technicians print Google maps beforehand and mark their findings with pencils, he said in an interview. There aren't robots surveying the land; there are people with metal detectors roaming the areas where they've received reports of mine sightings or incidents.

"We do not know where every mine is," Jaupi said. "They get on their hands and knees, often using standard gardening tools."

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