L. Craig Johnstone, UN deputy high commissioner for refugees, introduces a Google Earth presentation at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday. The UN refugee agency and Google unveiled a new mapping program that provides a close-up view of some of the world's major humanitarian operations. ((Anja Niedringhaus/Associated Press))

Google Inc. and the United Nations have teamed up to provide a close-up view of refugee camps and humanitarian efforts around the world, using the search giant's popular mapping tool Google Earth.

The UN deputy high commissioner for refugees, L. Craig Johnstone, unveiled the new, downloadable mapping layer Tuesday at UN headquarters in Geneva.

"Google Earth is a very powerful way for UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] to show the vital work that it is doing in some of the most remote and difficult displacement situations," he said in a release.

"By showing our work in its geographical context, we can really highlight the challenges we face on the ground and how we tackle them."

The new map is part of the Google Earth Outreach program, which provides humanitarian agencies with the skills and resources to create their own overlay for Google Earth maps, showing text, audio and video relevant to their projects.

The new UN maps focus on refugees and displaced people in Chad, Iraq, Colombia and Sudan's Darfur region and their impact on neighbouring countries.

Users can zoom in on specific camps to see detailed maps of the camp layouts, including the location of water and schools. In pop-up windows, users can watch video, look at pictures and read descriptions of the issues and responses in that particular region.

For example, users can zoom in on a camp in eastern Chad to see clusters of tents and learn about the difficulties of providing water to the approximately 15,000 refugees from Sudan's Darfur region who live there.

While not all parts of the world are displayed at the same high resolution, Google has made an effort to allow users to zoom in closely on refugee camps.

In the future, the agency and its partners will use the program to build and share a visual, geographic record of their efforts to help refugees.

Details would include cross-border mapping of population flows and the location of displaced persons in relation to their home countries, the UNHCR said in a release, adding that such information would be useful in the planning of future repatriation operations. 

More than 350 million people have downloaded Google Earth worldwide, Google officials said.

With files from the Associated Press