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A Nonprofit's Introduction to Google's Online Mapping Tools

How to use Google Maps and Google Earth for outreach and advocacy

By: Chris Peters and Mano Marks

April 22, 2009

Nonprofits, equipped with large amounts of data to bolster their causes, often face the conundrum of how to present that data meaningfully yet succinctly to online audiences. Long, academic treatises and case studies may scare off potential supporters, multiple charts and graphs can be time-consuming to sort through, and videos demand visual footage not every organization has access to. At the same time, photographs and a few lines of text may not do justice to the complex nature of an organization’s projects, concerns, and mission.

For this reason, more and more organizations are turning to online maps to depict complicated, multilayered information in a meaningful, immediate way. Whether it’s an activist organization highlighting incidences of violence throughout a region, an advocacy group comparing voting patterns within a district, or an historical organization showing how a city has transformed over time, maps can lend a sense of order and appeal to a variety of causes.

The sophistication of many online maps may intimidate some nonprofits, however, especially those lacking in-house programmers or a developed Web presence. While in the past, online maps may have required high-level programming and a hefty budget, new online mapping tools from companies like Google are allowing more and more organizations to create maps with little outside help or extra funds. While some mapping applications require more specialized skill than others, some can be used by virtually anybody, making them a more viable option for nonprofits.

In this article, we’ll show you how to select an online mapping project that meets your needs and fits within your budget, and provide a detailed overview of a range of Google mapping technologies that can help your organization put its cause (literally) on the map.

Ways Nonprofits Can Use Online Mapping Technologies

Some mapping projects tell a story. Others make services and resources more accessible and easier to find. If your organization is trying to decide whether to develop an online mapping project, what type of project you should undertake, or what tools you might want to use, a good way to start is with a tour of other nonprofit mapping projects.

Below are a few of the ways that other nonprofits are using Google Maps and Google Earth. (Note: To view some of these projects, you’ll need to download Google Earth or the Google Earth browser plug-in.)

  • A basic map of locations and directions. If your organization is the kind of place people turn to for services, maps easily direct them to your centers. The Emergency Food Shelf Network in Minneapolis is one example of this type of map.
  • A map of services and resources. The dynamic NOLA Food Map, for example, helps New Orleans residents locate nearby grocery stores, restaurants, and food banks.
  • A map that illustrates events over time. A good example is the Kenya Electoral Violence Map, which displays incidents of violence that occurred in that country during late 2007 and early 2008.
  • A map that provides information during a crisis. The 2007 San Diego Fires Map, for instance, depicts fire locations, evacuation zones, and freeway closures using graphic icons.
  • A map that illustrates relationships. uses maps to show Americans how they are personally connected to mountaintop removals in the Appalachian Mountains.
  • A map that shows areas of density and concentration. This "heat map," for example, shows solar power installations in California over time.
  • Maps that aggregate and display statistics. Thematic Mapping Engine , for example, charts a variety of quality of life indicators from the United Nations.

To see further examples of nonprofit maps, visit the Google Earth Outreach Showcase, which includes hundreds of maps developed by nonprofits and social benefit organizations.

Assessing your Resources and Options

If your Web-site development software is flexible and easy-to-use, creating a simple online map and embedding it in your Web site may require very little work or planning. For example, if you use a content management system (CMS) that provides a WYSIWYG editor and easy-to-use design templates, embedding a simple map of your service location will require only basic knowledge of your tool, access to the back-end of your Web site, and some knowledge of how your site is structured. From there, creating and embedding your map is often a simple process of clicking, typing, copying, and pasting, though you may need to play with the size and position options to get your map to look exactly the way you want it. If your site is “hand coded,” poorly organized, or otherwise difficult to use, you may need help from your site administrator to embed your map.

On the other hand, if you are considering a more complicated, advanced mapping project (like one similar to the examples described above), asking yourself a few questions can help you define the perimeters of your project and assess the resources you have at your disposal to get started.

  • What sorts of mapping projects are feasible given your resource constraints, and which of these fits with your mission? Begin by looking at mapping projects created by other nonprofits. Also, talk to your co-workers, constituents, and other stakeholders, asking them if any of their advocacy or outreach efforts would benefit from a map project. If they feel that they are already reaching their core audiences, you may want to put mapping on hold until a need exists.
  • What geographically-linked data and map content do you have already? What data can you collect going forward? What types of data can you borrow from someone else? For example, say you’d like to create a map of facilities in your city that provide free meals and free food to low-income residents. In this case you might ask, Are the addresses for each food bank compiled in one file? Is this data stored in a printed layout, or electronically? In a spreadsheet? In a database? Is the information comprehensive? Is it accurate and up-to-date? The more accurate, detailed, electronically organized data you have, the easier it will be to design and implement your map.
  • What sorts of talent and staff resources can you draw on? To create a simple set of directions in Google Maps, you only need a few minutes and basic computer skills. A map that identifies 40 or 50 service locations and provides their contact information requires no programming skill and might take between one and ten hours to complete, depending on how well organized your data is and your level of prior experience with online maps. On the other hand, some of the more complicated nonprofit projects featured in the Google Outreach Gallery required programming skills, design skills, storytelling ability, project coordination and data analysis skills, as well as weeks or months of work.
  • What mapping tools and applications best suit your needs? Which ones can you afford to acquire and maintain? Mapping and geographic technology (more formally known as geospatial technology) encompasses everything from simple mapmaking programs to multi-million dollar remote sensing and satellite navigation projects. Many of these programs are far beyond the reach of the average nonprofit. If you have more complex, advance needs related to mapping and data analysis, see Idealware’s article A Few Good Mapping and GIS Tools.

Google Maps and Google Earth

While many nonprofits may have both geographic data and some ideas about how they’d like to present the data on a map, time, technical expertise, and funds may be limited. Below, we’ll introduce and compare two free, powerful, and relatively easy-to-use online mapping tools from Google, Google Maps and Google Earth.

Two Distinct Tools

While Google Maps and Google Earth are both powerful online mapping tools that share many features and data, they are distinct applications that should be used for different purposes.

Google Maps is a free, easy to use Web-mapping application that anyone with basic computing skills can use to create a rich, useful, two-dimensional map in a few minutes (provided that the map doesn’t require a lot of custom data and functionality; in this case, it may take longer). You can use the maps you create in Google Maps for your own personal, one-time only use (for example, when looking up driving directions to a meeting in an unfamiliar part of town), or you can embed them in Web pages, emails, and other shared documents. Web maps display in any standard Web browser (such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox), and end users usually understand them without special instruction or explanation. Yahoo Maps, MapQuest, and Live Search Maps are other well-known Web-mapping tools.

Google Earth, on the other hand, is a free, downloadable virtual globe application that provides an immersive, three-dimensional visual experience that two-dimensional Web mapping programs can’t match. Yet while virtual globe applications are increasingly popular, they require a virtual globe application to view, which many end users may not have installed or mastered. Google Earth, like Google Maps, allows you to create and share basic content without programming knowledge or other advanced tech skills. However, the learning curve is a little steeper if you haven’t used a virtual globe program before. While Google Earth is the best-known virtual globe out there, NASA’s World Wind and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth 3D are also popular.

Comparison of Google Maps, Google Maps API, and Google Earth

The table below provides a head-to-head comparison of the features and uses of Google Maps, the Google Maps API, and Google Earth. A more detailed overview of each of these tools follows.

  Google Maps and My Maps Google Maps API Google Earth
What kind of tool is this? Web Mapping Service Mapping API Virtual Globe
What types of projects is this tool suited for? Driving directions, basic maps, and maps with unchanging content and minimal interactivity Interactive maps with lots of specialized, customized location data, especially when that data changes frequently. Virtual tours and educational mapping applications with lots of multimedia and interactive elements.
How hard is this for the developer? Easy Intermediate to difficult, depending on the project Depends on the project
What skills will you or your consultant need? Basic computer skills. Javascript skills or Flash skills. To create a medium-sized Google Earth project that’s fairly static and unchanging, you need to know the Google Earth application very well, but you don’t need programming skills. For a large project or one that changes a lot, you probably want to use the Google Earth API, which requires knowledge of Javascript and XML.
How customizable and feature-rich is the toolset? Low Highly customizable with a lot of features and functionality Highly customizable with many features and a lot of functionality.
How intuitive is this for the end user? Easy Depends on the implementation, but usually fairly easy to understand if the interface and documentation were crafted carefully. Depends on the project implementation to some extent. The software itself is intuitive, but to use some advanced features users may need to read the online help files and tutorials.
How interactive is this tool for the end user? Low interactivity. Depends on the project. High interactivity.
Cost of the toolset $0 $0


$400 for Pro Version, but nonprofits can apply for a free Google Earth Pro license
Cost of development Low Depends on the project. Depends on the project.

Google Maps

In the section below, we’ll discuss three Google Maps tools: Google Maps basic tool, Google My Maps, and Google Maps API. They are listed in order of difficulty, with Google Maps being the easiest to use, and Google Maps API the most difficult.

  • Google Maps basic map tool helps you create free, two-dimensional Web maps that can include almost any level of detail, from nations to street level). Whether you’re creating a map for your personal use (like directions to a restaurant in an unfamiliar part of town) or a map to share with your constituents, you usually begin by searching for a location, such as a street address or venue or for directions between two or more locations. If you want to share the map this search generates, you can embed it into a Web site, an email, or another digital publication. The Link button on the right side of the screen lets you alter the size of the map and provides you with a chunk of HTML code that you can paste into your Web site. With modern site software that relies on templates and WYSIWYG editors, you don’t need to understand HTML in order to embed your map. For Web sites that lack these user-friendly back-end features, you may need some knowledge of HTML and CSS, or assistance from someone who does. The Link button also provides a URL for your map that you can paste into an email message or any other digital document. Finally, you can print the map or copy it into a flyer or other print publication. If you embed a map into your Web site, it’s branded with the Google logo and links back to Google’s site, meaning that the attribution happens automatically. However, if you use a Google map in a print publication, you need to be more conscientious about giving proper credit . For more information about creating basic maps, see the Google Maps User Guide.
  • My Maps. Although you access Google’s My Maps feature from the same URL ( as the basic Google Maps tool described above, My Maps offers more functionality and allows you to save maps on Google’s servers so you can revise and enhance them at a later date. You will need a free Google account to use My Maps; once you’ve signed into your account, click on the My Maps tab on the left side of the browser window. From there, click “Create New Map” and give your map a title (for example “St. Louis Food Banks”). In the search box at the top, type in the address or name of a location you want to add to your map. If Google Maps recognizes the location, it centers on that address and puts an icon on the map to mark the location. Next to the icon, you’ll see an information bubble (or “placemark”) that includes a “Save to My Maps” command. (If you don’t see this bubble, click once on the icon.) After you’ve added all the locations you need to your map, you can customize each placemark with its own label, description, photo, video, and unique icon. To access the customization features, make sure your map is selected and look for the Edit button in the left-hand pane. You can also invite others to collaborate on any map that you create, as long as they have a Google account. Just as with the basic Google Maps tool, you can embed your customized maps into a Web page or distribute a link to the map via email. For more information, see the Google Maps User Guide.
  • Google Maps APIs. While some online maps are static and unchanging, other online maps are customized to suit the needs of each browser. For example, if you’re looking for a Goodwill store or drop-off location, you can visit the Goodwill Locator , type in your address and view a map of nearby stores near that address. Goodwill’s site developers couldn’t conceivably create a unique map for every single address in America and embed each one individually into its own Web page. Instead, they’ve written a program using the Google Maps API that sends a dynamic, real-time request to Google’s servers whenever someone types an address into the Goodwill Locator and clicks the Search button. The Google Maps API is a set of commands that any programmer can use to pull a map from Google into their own Web site or online application. Unless you have a lot of determination and spare time, however, it’s often easier to hire a programmer to help you create a mapping project that relies on APIs. While this means that creating a map using Google Maps API may be more expensive and time-consuming proposition, working with an API is often worth the effort because of the uniquely dynamic, flexible functionality it offers.

Google Earth and Google Earth Pro

Google Earth is a free, downloadable virtual globe application that lets users view maps, buildings, terrain, and topographical features in 3-D, offering an exciting, engaging, and novel way for users to interact with maps. Similar to Google Maps, Google Earth lets users zoom in and out of maps. Yet Google Earth lets users experience maps other ways as well: You can “spin the globe” using your mouse, or adjust your view to be level with the horizon (rather than a bird’s eye view). This ability to change your perspective also lets you look up at mountains, buildings, and other structures and landscapes. Google occasionally releases new features, such as a sky map that displays stars, galaxies, and other astronomical features.

Google Earth comes pre-populated with dozens of layers that display restaurants, businesses, historical landmarks, hiking routes, tourist destinations, natural habitats, current events, and other types of information, any of which can be toggled on or off by the end user. Layers can display political boundaries, roads, and other features, but are most commonly used to display related “places of interest.” Each place of interest consists of a marker on the map and an information bubble that typically includes a description of the landmark, but may also contain photographs, videos, or links to outside resources. The Global Awareness category includes 16 layers that display content designed to encourage awareness of a particular issue or cause area. Each layer is created and maintained by a large, well-known NPO or NGO. For example, UNICEF maintains a layer that describes its efforts to provide clean water and sanitation facilities around the world. The average nonprofit can’t add a layer to Google Earth to highlight its cause, since layers are created by Google or Google’s selected partners. However, there are other ways to share custom content for Google Earth.

As with Google Maps, Google Earth lets anyone create their own content, save it, and distribute it however they see fit. At the simplest level, this content consists mainly of icons on the map marking the location of a particular building, landmark, or event. To each of these icons, or placemarks, you can add stories, statistics, descriptive information, graphs, photos, videos, image overlays, and links to outside resources. For example, Imagery for Myanmar is a Google Earth project developed to help coordinate relief efforts after the 2008 Cyclone. It combines satellite imagery from before and after the cyclone, an animation that shows the path of the storm, an overlay that shows the extent of the flood waters, and information about health care facilities.

The latest version of Google Earth (5.0) also includes a Tours feature. Using this tool, anyone can record their navigation (zooming in, zooming out, flying over the terrain), focus on particular placemarks, and share the results with other users. For example, created a Google Earth tour that describes and demonstrates the six stages of the mountaintop removal mining process at a site in West Virginia.

Like Google Maps, Google Earth provides an API that lets you embed images from Google Earth into your Web site. The maps and images you pull from Google Earth will have the same rich, three-dimensional look and feel that they have when you view them in the Google Earth application itself. However, users will have to install a free plug-in for their Web browser in order to view these maps. To use the Google Earth API you will need to understand Javascript and KML. For more information, see Google’s KML Tutorial.

Getting a Free License to Google Earth Pro

The free, downloadable version of Google Earth is powerful and flexible, but advanced users and developers sometimes need the professional version. Google Earth Pro lets you import data in 14 file formats, performs faster than the free version, and lets you create compressed movies of the virtual tours you create in the application. It normally costs $400, but Google Earth Outreach grants free licenses to qualified 501(c)(3) organizations in the United States and to eligible charities in a few other countries. See the grant eligibility guidelines for more information. To learn more about Google Earth Outreach and how other nonprofits are using Google Earth, see the Google EarthOutreach Showcase , the Google EarthCase Studies and TechSoup’s article Reaching Out with Google Earth Outreach.

Sharing Map Content Using KML files

KML (Keyhole Markup Language) is the primary file format for saving information about a collection of places in Google Earth and sharing that information with colleagues and constituents. A .kml file is just like a .doc file. If you create a report in Microsoft Word, you can save it as a .doc file, send the file to three colleagues via email, or share it with a million constituents via your Web site. Anyone who has Microsoft Word or another program that understands the .doc file format can open your report, read it, and edit their own local copy of it.

After you’ve added photos, text, placemarks, and other information about your issue to Google Earth, go to File > Save > Save Place As. In the Save as window, you’re given the choice to save your map content as a .kml file, or a .kmz file (the latter is just a compressed version of the KML file format). You then share and distribute your KML or KMZ file the way you would any other file. For example, you can upload it to your Web site, attach it to an email message, or upload it to sites popular with Google Earth fans (for example the Google Earth Community and the other sites listed in the Resources section below). You don’t need any programming background to do this, though more advanced uses of KML may require knowledge of XML and Javascript. Some people still associate KML files solely with Google Earth, since the standard was originally created for use with that application. However, since it’s now an open file format standard, KML files can be read by Google Maps, Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth 3D, and many other mapping applications. Check out Quick Dirty KML Creation for more information.

Further Google Maps and Google Earth Resources

If you’re new to Google Earth, check out the official Google Earth User Guide , the Google Earth video tutorials , and the tutorials at Google Earth Outreach. You can ask questions of other developers, power users, and fans in the Google Earth Community forum.

For help with Google Maps, see the Google Maps User Guide and the Google Maps for Nonprofits Tutorial The sites below aren’t affiliated with Google, but they provide technical tips, news, and innovative applications for advanced users of Google Earth and Google Maps. You don’t need a programming background to understand most of the postings.