Google Earth Gets Real Again With Post-Katrina Imagery

After coming under fire last week for replacing aerial photos of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans on Google Earth with earlier pictures of the city in its pre-hurricane splendor, Google on Sunday switched photos once again to reveal the city more accurately in its current state.

Last week’s media coverage even sparked a letter from Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of a House of Representatives subcommittee on science and technology investigations and oversight, who on Friday demanded an explanation for the changes.

“To use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest,” Miller wrote in his letter. “Google’s use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history.”

‘This Joke Was on Us’

Indeed, speculation abounded last week about the reason for the original switch, including some conspiracy theories that questioned whether Google was part of an attempt to make post-Katrina recovery efforts look further along than they really are, in the hopes of restoring tourism to the area.

“We continued to make available the Katrina imagery, and associated overlays such as damage assessments and Red Cross shelters, on a dedicated site. Our goal throughout has been to produce a global earth database of the best quality — accounting for timeliness, resolution, cloud cover, light conditions and color balancing,” John Hanke, director of Google Maps/Local/Earth, stated in a post on the official Google blog.

The post-Katrina photos were originally replaced in September 2006 with higher-resolution pre-storm counterparts “as part of a regular series of global data enhancements,” he added.

Google was “a bit surprised by some of these recent comments,” Hanke wrote, but nevertheless was able to “expedite the processing” of recent aerial photographs equal in resolution to the images in question. “Make no mistake, this wasn’t any effort on our part to rewrite history,” Hanke wrote. “But it looks like this April Fool’s joke was on us.”

Still Waiting

Miller was out of the country on Monday, and so was not available to comment on the latest developments personally. However, “I know he and the subcommittee still want to hear from Google,” LuAnn Canipe, communications director for Miller for the subcommittee, told TechNewsWorld.

“They are very glad Google has changed the photos back, and have read the blog explanation. But they still want to hear from Google about their policies, why they changed the photos originally and whether or not someone asked them to change them,” she stated.

Given how widely Google’s services are used, Miller’s core concerns are the potential for dishonesty and “the idea of changing history,” Canipe added.

All Eyes on Google

“This has been getting a lot of attention because it’s Google, but I think it’s probably just a case of someone not thinking about the political impact of the original decision,” Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence, told TechNewsWorld.

“I don’t think Google Earth maps of the area are going to have an impact one way or the other on tourism,” he noted.

Rather, the more important realization from this controversy may be how influential Google has become. “This reflects the power of Google and the Google brand in the marketplace,” Sterling said. “If it were a lesser-known company, there wouldn’t be nearly this kind of coverage.”

In short, “anything Google does today has an impact on the market, positive or negative,” he concluded.

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