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and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.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.

Is the Net About to Crash? And is User-Generated Content to Blame?

From the Chicago Tribune:

Those amusing YouTube video clips that Internet users send to friends gobble up large chunks of bandwidth and may cause the Net to crash, some elements of the telecom industry warn. It’s an admonition many dismiss as political posturing intended to dissuade lawmakers from restricting the freedom of phone companies to manage Internet traffic as they wish. But no one disagrees that the Web’s capacity is being pushed to its limits. (…)

The problem (…) is that traffic volumes are growing faster than computing power, meaning that engineers can no longer count on newer, faster computers to keep ahead of their capacity demands. A recent report from Deloitte Consulting raised the possibility that 2007 would see Internet demand exceed capacity. Worldwide, more users every day join the 1 billion people who now use the Internet. Popularity of bandwidth-hungry video makes far greater demands on the network than more basic applications like e-mail, Web browsing or even voice over the Internet. (…)

While the network was famously overbuilt during enthusiasm of the 1990s Internet bubble, much of that capacity is being used now or soon will be (…) and network operators are faced with making significant investment to expand capacity further to meet growing demands fueled largely by video applications.

The Deloitte report, along with comments earlier this month by a Google executive at a technology conference in Amsterdam about Web capacity problems, have been cited as examples why telecom companies shouldn’t face new regulations. Walter McCormick Jr., chief of US Telecom, the trade group representing dominant phone companies, wrote to lawmakers arguing that the need to manage capacity would be impeded if “network neutrality” legislation passes. Backed by several consumer groups as well as large Internet enterprises such as Google, network neutrality legislation forbids phone companies from managing the network to favor one Internet user’s content over another’s. (…)

Telecom executives focus on possible broadband capacity shortfalls because of their heritage, said David Isenberg, an independent industry analyst who once worked for the Bell System. “They want to manage the Internet as a scarce resource,” Isenberg said. “Internet executives want to manage it as an abundant resource. It’s a basic philosophical difference.” A major obstacle for telecom managers in planning future capacity needs is that much of the Web’s video traffic is generated by individuals who send clips to friends. This contrasts to the broadcast model, where one source sends the same program to many recipients, said Bill Kleinebecker, a senior consultant with Austin-based Technology Futures Inc.

While keeping ahead of bandwidth demand is challenging and expensive, it’s not impossible, said John Ryan, a senior vice-president at Level3 Communications, which operates part of the Internet backbone. “With appropriate continuing investment, the Internet is capable of handling any applications,” Ryan said. “What we’re starting to see is a distinction between those operators who have the capital to fund expansion and those that don’t.”

What it means: as many of you know, there’s a big debate in the US around Net Neutrality (here’s Google’s take on it). If you’re running a business that depends on the Web, you need to follow where this dossier is going as it might have major impacts on the way online businesses are run in the future. Here’s what my crystal ball is telling me: if the Net Neutrality bill is passed, we won’t see too much change as the market will dictate the future. If network operators are allowed to prioritize any content or services that travel across their pipes, we will first see the birth of Haves and Have-Nots (web site properties who can pay and those who can’t). This might stifle innovation for a while until Google/Yahoo/Microsoft partner to launch their own free version of the Internet (monetized using advertising). Think that’s crazy? Rumors have been circulating about Google building their own Internet…

Meta-Praized: Google, Portals, Publicis/Digitas, Real-Time Local Inventory, Social Networks Privacy, Blake Ross, Mozilla, Digital Sales Boost Music Industry

Meta-Praized is a collection of links & stories we’ve “dugg” on Digg.com in the last few weeks. Feel free to add us as a friend: PraizedDotCom .

Praized-Worthy Today: The Influence of YouTube on Brand Marketing and Politics, Engagement as a New Metrics

  • dove_evolution_video.jpgThe influence of YouTube on brand marketing in Advertising Age: “With not a penny of paid media and in less than a month, “Dove Evolution,” a
    75-second viral film created by Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto, for the Unilever brand has reaped more than 1.7 million views on YouTube and has gotten significant play on TV talk shows “Ellen” and “The View” as well as on “Entertainment Tonight.” It’s also brought the biggest-ever traffic spike to CampaignForRealBeauty.com

What it means: notwithstanding the media, I believe viewers always want to be entertained and informed. This film does exactly that, like the Coke and Mentos film. But what does it mean for traditional media if you can create major buzz without spending traditional media money? Can this be reproduced easily? Is there a formula? Is this considered PR? I think major brands have no choice but to embrace these new marketing methods
as part of an integrated media mix for now.

  • youtube_election_video.jpgThe influence of YouTube on US mid-term elections in the New York Times: “in this election, YouTube, with its extant social networks and the ability
    to forward a video clip and a comment with a flick of the mouse, has become a source of viral work-of-mouth. As a result, a disruptive technology that was supposed to upend a half-century-old distribution model of television is having a fairly disruptive effect on politics as well.”

What it means: politicians are brands as well and need to leverage these new tools in a media-fragmented world. Don’t forget though that narrowcasting a video might mean broadcasting it with the high-trafficked video sites (read the Ken Avidor example in the New York Times article).

  • “How do you measure engagement” on Robert Scoble’s blog: “I’ve compared notes with several bloggers and journalists and when the Register links to us we get almost no traffic. But they claim to have millions of readers. So, if millions of people are hanging out there but no one is willing to click a link, that means their audience has low engagement.
    (…) Compare that to Digg. How many people hang out there every day? Maybe a million, but probably less. Yet if you get linked to from Digg you’ll see 30,000 to 60,000 people show up. And these people don’t just read. They get involved. I can tell when Digg links to me cause the comments for that post go up too.”

What it means: there is an ongoing debate about the value of users in the online ad world. As I often say in the search world, not all searches are born equal. It will eventually be all about conversion and ROI (sales, posting a comment, interacting with your brand, etc.)

Update: MediaPost writes from AdTech NY: “John Stichweh, director of global interactive marketing for The Coca-Cola Company, this morning cast doubt on whether the company thinks engagement is a goal
worth pursuing. The measurement that really matters, he said, is sales. “How many more cases of Coke am I selling? I don’t know”. In fact, Stichweh proposed that the concept of “engagement,” as well as other metrics like “brand awareness” that serve as proxies for sales, fall far short of what marketers require. “What am I getting for the shareholder?” he asked, rhetorically. “I don’t know.”

Democracy 2.0 or User-Generated Pork Barrel? ;-)

Read in November 2006’s Wired Magazine: Daniel Rosen is a candidate for U.S. Representative in Nevada’s Second Congressional District. “Rosen’s pitch to the people of Nevada’s Second Congressional District is that if they send him to Washington in November, he’ll vote exactly the way his constituents tell him to. Really. Each of the district’s 358,000 registered voters would be able to log in to a secure Web site and record their preference for every piece of legislation that comes before Congress.”

What it means: although I’m a strong believer in using the Web to democratize the political process (the real “power to the people”), this might be pushing the envelope too much. I like the general idea but, at the same time, an elected official is put in office to represent people, need to be able to take decisions based on complex dossiers and can’t really manage by polls (in this case votes, but you know what I mean).  In any case, this might stimulate more people to vote and that’s good!   Expect the next 10 years to be really interesting though in terms of social applications applied to politics.