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Hands-on: Google’s International Cleanup Weekend

Greer Park in upscale Palo Alto, Calif., isn’t what you would call dirty.

Nor is it sprayed with graffiti, broken down, rusty or disheveled. In fact, nothing on the surface would indicate the need for a concentrated effort by Google employees and friends participating in Google’s first International Cleanup Weekend, an endeavor born in part to publicize the MyMaps application and KML, the XML-based markup language used to make Google’s interactive Web maps.

Yet here were eight of us, stooping to harvest bottle caps, gum wrappers and cigarette butts from the tanbark and grass at 9:30 a.m. on a glorious Saturday morning in this wealthy San Francisco suburb.

A chance discovery turned us from the ground cover to the bushes, where the real pay dirt lay. Yi Wei, a 21-year-old Google user experience designer, dragged an abandoned couch cushion from the hedges lining the park.

“There’s trash everywhere,” he said. “You just have to look for it.”

The search proved more fruitful after that, with the foliage yielding beer bottles, metal grates, plastic bags, food wrappers, a dirty diaper, lost sports balls and two long metal poles that looked like supports for a soccer goal. Plastic bags began to fill.

If you hadn’t heard much about Google International Cleanup Weekend on October 13 and 14, here’s why. The loosely organized event sprang from summer intern So Jieun Oh’s tutorial of a beach cleanup that was created to teach users how the KML markup language can make interactive, multimedia map mashups.

The Google Earth Outreach team, which helps sell non-profits and businesses on using Google products, glommed onto the idea of using MyMaps to let small groups of employees coordinate local cleanups and then share photos and video posted to their maps.

“The logical extension of that is, why not do it for everyone in the world,” said Vaughn Tan, 27, an Associate Product Marketing Manager on the Google Earth Outreach team.

“It’s cool thinking that…after this weekend the world will be a little cleaner,” added Cathy Tang, 22, the product marketing manager in charge of the International Cleanup Weekend Web site.

Google counted more than 300 maps spanning six continents on the event’s site. Publicity through organizations like Americorps, Idealist.org and The Scout Association in the U.K. helped populate the master map.

There’s no good way to know how many events actually took place without meticulous counting–autumn storms may have postponed some events, like Tan’s October 14 cleanup in San Francisco’s Dolores Park.

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