Google Maps Gets Caught in Political Crossfire

CNN.com has a story this morning that puts Google in the spotlight for alleged modifications to New Orleans images in Google Maps. According to the report, Google has reverted the New Orleans pictures shown on Google Maps with pre-Katrina ones, “airbrushing history”. Highlights from the CNN article:

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and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery. “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-North Carolina, wrote in a letter to Schmidt. (…)

After Katrina, Google’s satellite images were in high demand among exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see whether their homes were damaged. Now, though, a virtual trip through New Orleans via Google Maps is a surreal experience of scrolling across an unscathed landscape of packed parking lots and marinas full of boats. 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.
(…)

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.” (…)

John Hanke from the Google Earth team had this answer on the Google blog this morning:

“In 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, a very motivated group of volunteers at Google worked with NOAA, NASA, and others to post updated imagery of the affected areas in Google Maps and Google Earth as quickly as possible.” (…)

Several months later, in September 2006, the storm imagery was replaced with pre-Katrina aerial photography of much higher resolution as part of a regular series of global data enhancements. 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.

(…) we recognize the increasingly important role that imagery is coming to play in the public discourse, and so we’re happy to say that we have been able to expedite the processing of recent (2006) aerial photography for the Gulf Coast area (already in process for an upcoming release) that is equal in resolution to the data it is replacing. That new data was published in Google Earth and Google Maps on
Sunday evening. (…)

What it means: in what is in my opinion a tempest in a teapot, Google has met a bunch of very cynical people who think companies conspire behind their back all the time. Having met the Google folks many times, negotiated and had many discussions with them, they truly follow their “don’t be evil” motto. They are very smart and don’t play political games. But the fact that they don’t play political games might make them forget that politics (and politicians) have become an important stakeholder in their decision-making process given their important size. When they make a technology move like this one, they do it to improve their end product, not to hide reality. I’m convinced they were truly surprised (and hurt!) by the reaction. For everyone else out there, if you run an important service, used by a large percentage of the population, people will start thinking it’s an official service and that it represents the absolute truth. You need to be aware of that fact.

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