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Google Impact Award

October 10, 2023

Brian Thom

(UVic anthropologist, Brian Thom stands in front of Google Headquarters in California, U.S.)

At Google’s 2023 Geo for Good User Summit, UVic anthropologist Brian Thom received an Impact Award for his work supporting Indigenous rights and territories with Google Earth.

Since shortly after the release of Google Earth in the mid-2000s, Thom has been using its rich, interactive canvas for viewing the world as a platform for visualizing Indigenous territories, cultural landscapes, and land rights.  Much of this work has been in the Coast Salish world, developing partnerships and collaborations to support indigenous self-determination and inter-generational knowledge sharing.

“By powerfully sharing indigenous cultural landscapes using tools like Google Earth, Indigenous lands and lives are recentered in conversations that have traditionally mapped them out,” says Thom.

Thom came to UVic in 2010 after more than 13 years as a researcher and negotiator for several Coast Salish First Nations in the BC Treaty process. To support partnerships between researchers and Indigenous communities, he established UVic’s Ethnographic Mapping Lab as a collaborative space for faculty, graduate students and undergraduate researchers to partner with Indigenous communities to support their efforts to map their territories and cultural places. Google’s mapping tools, such as Google Earth, Google MyMaps, and others, have been the centre of the methodologies developed, working on powerful visualization that can be readily leveraged by Indigenous peoples. 

One of the early high-profile projects of the Ethnographic Mapping Lab was work in 2013-14 when Thom and an anthropology graduate student worked with youth and Elders from Stz’uminus First Nation to document stories connected to Hul’q’umi’num; place names using a then-new Google mapping tool called MyMaps.

The power and potential of using Google’s democratizing mapping tools to support inter-generational knowledge sharing and Indigenous rights in community-driven research was featured by the Globe and Mail in a 2-page story with accompanying web map. The story won the journalist Justine Hunter a Jack Webster award for digital journalism.

“In my experience supporting Indigenous peoples’ self-determination, there is nearly always a map in the room. Google Earth is particularly powerful in drawing attention to Indigenous priorities, values, and rights in these discussions,” explains Thom.

One of the innovations emerging from this work has been applying the methods and sensibilities of ethnography – the study of cultures – to the ways digital maps are created, co-produced, and shared.  Google Earth is a compelling way to draw these practices together, placing Indigenous stories and cultural landscapes on a canvas of rich visual imagery of the world.  The platform responds well to issues like Indigenous data sovereignty, and removes significant technical barriers for its use by and for community.

“It is an honour and privilege to facilitate long-term research collaborations that celebrate and foreground Indigenous knowledge and relationships to land,” says Thom. 

In 2019, he worked with the Earth Outreach team at Google to help with their celebration for the International Day of Indigenous Languages.  Users of Google’s main search page around the world were pointed to a rich, audio-embedded Google Earth map celebrating Indigenous languages, including Island Hul’q’umi’num’ spoken by yutustanaat from Snuneymuxw First Nation.

“Locally-relevant methods and locally-applied impacts for this work have been an important milestone for how I gauge the success of my community-engaged research,” says Thom.

The 2023 Impact Award highlights Thom’s recent Google Earth mapping work here in Saanich. His work using a Google Earth map of Indigenous cultural landscapes in Cordova Bay catalyzed conversations between Indigenous and municipal governments to Indigenizing municipal land use planning. Last year the Cordova Bay Local Area plan was passed into law, highlighting Indigenous values and priorities for the future of this community.  This work was also recognized last year in a ceremony at the Lieutenant Governor’s House with a Leadership award for Extending Reconciliation.

“Looking to the future, my students and I are working with Ry Moran in UVic libraries to develop a Google Earth map that centres recognize Indigenous lands and histories here in our UVic area,” says Thom. With a research sabbatical around the corner, Thom is also working on several scholarly publications sharing on his insights on ethnographic mapping and Indigenous cartographies.

More information and links to Google Earth projects:

Google announces Geo for Good Impact Award.