Google is getting questioned over why they replaced post-Katrina satellite images showing New Orleans devastation with older, pre-Katrina images. Was it just an innocent mistake? From today’s SF Chronicle/AP:
replacement of post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its map
portal with images of the region before the storm does a "great
injustice" to the storm’s victims, a congressional subcommittee said.
The House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on
investigations and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and
CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated
The subcommittee cited an Associated Press report on the images.
"Google’s use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of
Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history,"
subcommittee chairman Brad Miller, D-N.C., wrote in a letter to
Swapping the post-Katrina images and the ruin they revealed for others
showing an idyllic city dumbfounded many locals and even sparked
suspicions that the company and civic leaders were conspiring to
portray the area’s recovery progressing better than it is. […]
After Katrina, Google’s satellite images were in high demand among
exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see whether their homes were
Now, though, a virtual trip through New Orleans is a surreal experience
of scrolling across a landscape of packed parking lots and marinas full
Reality, of course, is very different: Entire neighborhoods are now
slab mosaics where houses once stood and shopping malls, churches and
marinas are empty of life, many gone altogether.
John Hanke, Google’s director for maps and satellite imagery, said "a
combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity"
go into deciding what imagery to provide.
"The latest update from one of our information providers substantially
improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area," Hanke said in a
news release about the switch.
Kovacs said efforts are under way to use more current imagery. […]
Edith Holleman, staff counsel for the House subcommittee, said it would
be useful to understand how Google acquires and manages its imagery
because "people see Google and other Internet engines and it’s almost
like the official word."
Link: Congressional subcommittee criticizes Google pre-Katrina images.
Lauren Weinstein calls it a bum rap:
Greetings. I know a bum rap when I see one. People who should know better — such as the House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight chairman Brad Miller, D-North Carolina — are accusing Google of "airbrushing" history on Google Maps.
Google says that one of their imagery suppliers switched to older data that was higher resolution. Balancing timeliness of data with resolution is a non-trivial task for a mapping site, and in retrospect perhaps some sort of exception should have been carved out for that region when the changes went live, but hindsight is 20/20.
Link: Lauren Weinstein’s Blog: Google Getting a Bum Rap Over Hurricane Katrina Images.
I’m sure this was unintentional, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to make Google answer questions about it and take some responsibility. This is not the first time Google has tried to hide behind algorithms in response to questions about controversial results (see earlier posts: Google correctness, Computers are the new authorities).
We know that there’s some human selection going on with satellite images (to remove photos of military sites, for example). Does Google do any of that or is it all done by the data suppliers? Google needs to be more open about their processes. The statement above by Edith Holleman has it exactly right.
On a more technical note, how about a button in Google Maps to show dates on the satellite photos? That’s clearly an important piece of the information for users to know.