Google Under Fire For Showing Pre-Katrina New Orleans Images; Others Doing The Same?

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.

Google Maps

Picture 1

This image from Google Maps (licensed from DigitalGlobe) shows plenty of homes, while the USA Today article says of the area:

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.

Yahoo Maps

Picture 3

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.

Microsoft Live

Picture 2

With Live Search Maps, the image (from the US Geological Survey) shows everything as gray, so it is hard to tell by the colors if there’s damage reflected or not.

[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].

Ask Maps

Picture 4

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.

Overall

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.

Background

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.

Related Topics: Ask: Maps | Channel: Local | Google: Maps & Local | Microsoft: Bing Maps & Local | Search Engines: Maps & Local Search Engines | Yahoo: Maps & Local

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.eddiewalter.com/blog/ Eddie Walter

    Danny,

    What exactly is the conspiracy theory that is floating around because of this? What in the world do people think is being covered up?

  • gary price

    Danny,
    One source for imagery of major U.S. metro areas can be found at:
    http://orthoimagery.cr.usgs.gov/
    Select viewer:
    http://orthoimagery.cr.usgs.gov/website/orthoimagery/viewer.php

    Now, either search with a place name (select the binoculars icon) or use the magnifying glass icon to zoom in on an area.

    Clicking on the dataset or metadata link will provide some date info.

    You might want to first browse this list of what ortho imagery USGS offers online.
    http://orthoimagery.cr.usgs.gov/website/orthoimagery/documents/listofHRO.php

    2) Another source for USGS imagery (nationwide) is to go to the USGS “Seamless” site.

    http://seamless.usgs.gov

    Here you can search, browse, view, and download imagery. Some international imagery is also available. The viewer and UI is similar to the one for the orthoimagery.cr.usgs.

    Then, once the map appears you can see various “layers” of data available on the right side of the page.
    Selecting “Orthoimagery” offers numerous datasets for New Orleans, LA. After zooming in a bit more we find datasets data 2003 and 2006.

    See Also: Learn More about Hi-Res USGS imagery:
    http://edc.usgs.gov/products/aerial/hiresortho.html

    Also, for commercial imagery, GeoEye’s CARTERRA (free to search, registration required) offers date info and and date searching.

    Finally, several datasets plus the ability to import KML,KMZ files and also use Virtual Earth imagery are all part of NASA’s World Wind resource.
    http://www.worldwindcentral.com
    And World Wind Add-ons.
    http://www.worldwindcentral.com/add-ons/list

  • MS_native

    I am surprised at this response. For months after Katrina I went to Goggle often and was comforted to be able to look at things the way they used to be. In fact the first time I did this, I discovered that while Jackson County was intact, travelling over the Ocean Springs Biloxi bridge, halfway across the brige the imagery changed to post-Katrina. It was so sad. On one side of the drawbridge were cars waiting, while a boat passed underneath; move the image and the bridge was in pieces underwater. Life disrupted. Finally I went back one time to see Pascagoula filled with blue roofs, FEMA trailers, and brown vegetation. I didn’t want to look again after that.

    Why can’t there be two different versions to view?

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