Citizen Intelligence Analysts Unveil North Korea Via Google Earth

May 29, 2009
Category: Uncategorized

North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities are making headlines again — and making people curious about what that closed nation is like. An independent collaborative project called North Korea Uncovered uses Google Earth to compile the efforts of many volunteer analysts from around the world, presenting a rich view of North Korea.

This project is a great example of how interactive online mapping tools can not only enrich the context of news, but also focus the efforts of a community to dig into an issue.

North Korea Uncovered began in April 2007. The “package” is a KMZ data file that can be opened in the popular Google Earth program. Since 2007 it has gone through several iterations and was most recently released on May 14. The project is headed by Curtis Melvin, an economics doctoral student at George Mason University who blogs at North Korean Economy Watch. So far, the file has been downloaded about 47,000 times.

In addition to placemarks, data and media, it also contains links to related sites and sources that open in your Web browser. One example of this is The Hidden Gulag, a catalog of North Korea’s prison camps based on prisoner testimony and satellite photos published by the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

The Wall Street Journal reported on what happened after Melvin published the initial file with data and photos he’d gathered on his two group tours of North Korea:

“People soon started sending him locations they knew, from tourist sites to airfields tucked into valleys near South Korea. Mr. Melvin says that sadness for North Koreans’ plight, and the fascination of discovery, motivated him to continue. Many updates later, Mr. Melvin and his correspondents have plotted out what they say is much of the country’s transportation network and electrical grid, and many of its military bases. They’ve spotted what they believe are mass graves created in the 1995-98 famine that killed an estimated two million people. The vast complexes of Mr. Kim and other North Korean leaders are visible, with palatial homes, pools, even a water slide.”

How accurate is this information, and who are the sources? According to the Journal, “Mr. Melvin says he cross-checks what information he can and adjusts other facts with the help of collaborators. He says he has met only a few of the contributors. Some have identified themselves as former members of the U.S. military who once studied the country professionally. Some have been anonymous.”

That sounds like the kind of sources professional news organizations rely on for similar information about secretive countries. The Journal story refers to the contributors as “citizen spies,” but really what they’re doing is analyzing information that Google has made public and augmenting it with their own research and experience. This isn’t exactly spying, but it can be valuable.

If your news organization is covering the unfolding North Korean nuclear/missile saga, take a minute to download this file (and install Google Earth if you haven’t already). Then view the places and information on the map related to your coverage. Explore other nearby locations to get a sense of local or historic context. Zoom in, shift your angle of view and take screenshots. Try creating your own video/audio tour of places within this dataset by using the “tour” feature under the “add menu” and posting it on your site or to video-sharing services such as YouTube.

A tool like this can help your North Korea coverage go far beyond parroting whatever is running on the wire services, major papers and broadcast networks.

As you explore North Korea Uncovered, consider how your news organization might use Google Earth to present your news in a geographic context and to engage your community in sharing its information, experience and context to enrich coverage.

(Thanks to the SDR News podcast for the tip.)