How the Web can help shape current events
It never fails to amaze me how the Internet and modern telecommunications have both empowered people to do great things and provided an invaluable educational tool. This is especially poignant when lives are at stake.
In an earlier column I mentioned that people interested in the politics of the Darfur tragedy in Africa can log onto Google Earth and see aerial photographs of burned villages. Seeing this destruction with your own eyes validates the old notion about a picture being worth a thousand words.
In a similar vein, Google Earth recently captured the imagination of people interested in the uprising in Myanmar, where an oppressive government has been brutally putting down a protest movement.
Despite bans on Western journalists entering the country, a brave group of "citizen journalists" transmitted images to the outside world before the Internet there was shut down.
People also turned to You-Tube, which has a special section on Myanmar, for amateur videos that show chanting monks in red robes marching down the street. All this happened in a very poor country with an Internet penetration estimated at around 1 percent of the population.
Just a few days ago, KPBS-FM, a public radio station in San Diego, began coverage of the monumental fire that swept through the area. They did this with updates, stories, listeners' calls, interviews and more.
KPBS doesn't have a huge staff, much less helicopters like many TV stations. What it does have is a crew that understands how to leverage the Web and a dedicated group of listeners.
Online Managing Editor Leng Caloh was aware of a new application called My Map from Google. My Map is generally used to identify places such as the best restaurants, golf courses, coffee houses or other venues.
Caloh took this technology to create a virtual map of southern California and illustrate it with icons depicting active wild fires, locations of shelters, what roads were available and where people could safely park their cars, RVs or even find shelter for their pets. Google maps were made to show fire damage right down to the city block. Every fire was tracked, and updates were posted on the Web site. The coverage was so comprehensive that even the state fire agency's Web site was linked to the KPBS site.
The cases of Darfur, Myanmar and San Diego clearly illustrate how the Internet has become an invaluable tool for the average citizen to have a greater understanding of the world around them and, to make a difference.
In the case of San Diego, the adversary was a fire. In the case of Darfur and Burma, the antagonists have been tyrannical governments.
In all these cases, technology in the hands ordinary people has helped save lives and allowed the world to see what is truly transpiring.