Google goes back to pre-Katrina maps from USA Today reports that Google Maps has changed their satellite imagery of New Orleans to show pre-Katrina images, getting some local residents angry and wondering if there’s some type of cover-up in the works. However, it’s unclear if these are pre-Katrina images or not — and the situation’s just as confusing with mapping services from other search engines.
USA Today writes:
Google’s popular map portal has replaced post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery with pictures taken before the storm, leaving locals feeling like they’re in a time loop and even fueling suspicions of a conspiracy.
Scroll across the city and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and everything is back to normal: Marinas are filled with boats, bridges are intact and parks are filled with healthy, full-bodied trees.
"Come on," said an incredulous Ruston Henry, president of the economic development association in New Orleans’ devastated Lower 9th Ward. "Just put in big bold this: ‘Google, don’t pull the wool over the world’s eyes. Let the truth shine.’"
Barry Schwartz and I thought we’d take a deeper look, to see what Google was doing compared to the other search engines. Since the Lower 9th Ward is mentioned, we looked at 1616 Caffin Ave, New Orleans, LA 70117, which is in that area. From what we can tell, Google’s not alone in showing pre-Katrina images.
Homes wiped off their foundations are miraculously back in place in the Lower 9th.
However, it’s not clear if no homes at all have been rebuilt since the disaster. In addition, if you zoom closer and pan left, you will notice that some of the roofs are dark and there appears to be dirt between the homes. So it does appear that Google is showing some post-Hurricane Katrina images.
In this image from Yahoo Maps (licensed from Aerials Express), the area seems relatively OK, similar to what Google is showing. Unlike Google, zoom closer and pan left, and the view doesn’t change to suggest damage. It stays bright and green.
[Postscript: Gary Price points me to TerraServer, Microsoft's other mapping service that pulls from USGS images. Here's the same area there. It's the same picture, as best I can tell -- and this time, you have a date: December 28, 2002].
The Ask Maps image (licensed from DigitalGlobe’s GlobeXplorer) has a mix. Parts of the maps have post-Katrina images (and in fact, appear to be right after the storm) while others seem to be pre-Hurricane Katrina.
The USA Today article was sparked by new images released by Google. But as you can see, the other search engines may already have had older information covering the city as well. Or, it may be that some of these images are actually fresh, showing parts of the city where there’s been some rebuilding. It’s difficult for us to day, since we’re not familiar with the rebuilding efforts in various locations of New Orleans.
Certainly, many people turned to these maps immediately after the Katrina devastation to understand what happened. Google made special efforts to get updated images online, and it wasn’t alone. Many residents of New Orleans clearly feel forgotten or abandoned after the damage. Perhaps the search engines should consider keeping updated images of the area as a priority. That would certainly make it easier for progress — or lack of it — to stay foremost in everyone’s minds.
At the very least, this points out the need for images being show to be dated somehow, so people know exactly when they were shot. This isn’t the first time the issue has come up. Let’s get some dates out there, so the guesswork can stop.
Postscript: Google’s John Hanke, Director, Maps and Earth emailed this statement:
In order to publish the best data possible, we must take into account a combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity. The latest update from one of our information providers substantially improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area. The detailed imagery was taken before Katrina.
We are working to update Google Earth with more current New Orleans imagery, and continue to make post-Katrina imagery available on a dedicated website.
Immediately after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Google Earth coordinated efforts with the United States coastal guard to get the most current data possible into our databases. Imagery from different agencies was collected on our servers in an effort to get representations of the devastated area that were in the highest quality available and more easily accessible to the public than ever before. As a result, teams of people formed across the country were able to analyze affected topographies using Google Earth, which significantly improved relief efforts.
To clarify further, I think the situation here is that Google may have gained more detailed — IE, more close-up coverage — of the general area. It sounds like they had to decide whether to use close-up information, while out-of-date, or stick with newer information that didn’t let you zoom in as much.
Of course, zooming in does make little sense if you’re zooming in on areas that are now completely different. I’ll check further on this, to confirm more.
Postscript Barry: Google Responds To Katrina Controversy With Fresh New Orleans Images.