April 2, 2007 8:52 AM PDT

Google updates maps after Katrina 'airbrushing' incident

Accused by a Democrat in the U.S. Congress of "airbrushing history," Google said it has now replaced pre-Hurricane Katrina satellite images of the Gulf Coast region with more recent aerial photographs.

The search giant came under fire late last week after the Associated Press reported the company had traded imagery documenting the August 2005 storm's devastating effects in its mapping services for higher-resolution images depicting pre-hurricane calm.

Google on Sunday said it had no intention of "rewriting history" but nonetheless was able to "expedite" the processing of 2006 aerial photography data for New Orleans that is of equally high quality. That update went up on Sunday evening, the company said.

The initial news attracted concerns from Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of a House of Representatives science oversight subcommittee. On Friday, he sent a letter (PDF) demanding an explanation for the changes from CEO Eric Schmidt.

Miller was unavailable for comment on Monday, as he is currently visiting the Darfur region as part of Congress' spring recess. Despite a recent Google blog post that attempts to clarify the situation, the subcommittee still expects responses to Miller's letter, said Luann Canipe, communications director for the congressman.

"The congressman's concern is that it was fundamentally dishonest," Canipe said in a telephone interview. "Certainly the most basic question is, did someone ask you to change the maps and if so who was it?"

Google said it planned to send a response to the congressman's queries on Monday. The company confirmed it had swapped out the post-Katrina images in September, but it maintained that decision hinged on its interest in providing its users with high-quality images. The changes were part of a broader update that "substantially improved the imagery detail for dozens of cities around the world, including New Orleans," a representative said in a statement e-mailed to CNET News.com on Monday.

Even after it replaced the post-Katrina images, users could continue to view Katrina imagery captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--along with map overlays such as damage assessments and Red Cross shelters--at a dedicated site, said John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps.

In his Sunday morning entry on the official corporate blog, Hanke said Google found the recent comments a bit surprising. "Our goal throughout has been to produce a global earth database of the best quality," he wrote, "accounting for timeliness, resolution, cloud cover, light conditions, and color balancing."

See more CNET content tagged:
congressman, imagery, Gulf Coast, New Orleans, region

22 comments

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Not the only one
I checked Gulfport Mississippi both before and after today's story. Gulfport is shown alive and well on Google Satellite.

I could see how this would happen, by the way. Hamilton Township NJ satellite view never showed the "new" train station--not all that new, so they were just using old imagery. Not a conspiracy or anything.
Posted by p40tomahawk (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Google Earth is not a big deal...
Actually there are areas of Europe, which I know up close and personal, that are represented with images as old as 2003. And that is in the present April 3rd, 2007.
So... No wonder they do that. I do understand it's an immense job to even update such a visual database, but... hey!
Posted by Kostagh (57 comments )
Link Flag
Worst yet, the congressman
By what authority right does a congressman demand that a
private business display photos to his liking? Does he think he's
the congressman from Myanmar? How does Google's minor faux
pas compared to the obliteration of a city as a result of a
negligent government in which Brad Miller is a prominent
official? How does Google's trivial error compare to the mass
bloodshed resulting from the war that Mr. Miller avidly supports?
Does Google support itself with confiscated money and ravenous
consumption of pork, like Mr. Miller and his colleagues do? Mark
Twain had it right: congress is America's only native criminal
class, and Brad Miller is a thug in good standing.
Posted by nicmart (1829 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly
This a publicity hungry technophobe trying to get his day in the sun at the expensive of a private enterprise that offers more useful tools for free than any company in recent memory.

I'm not a fan of all of Google's practices (especially with respect to Chinese censorship), but for this blowhard public official to bluster on like this is some isidious cover-up is insulting. How would he like it if Google just says screw you and takes Google Maps offline (which they have every right to do)? Would that serve the public benefit?

Politicians trying to build their names off of Katrina compassion should be called out.

-Mister Winky
Posted by Mister Winky (301 comments )
Link Flag
Congressman
While I dont want to get into the habit of defending democrat politicians, this guy has just as much right as anyone does to contact google and demand an answer. He's still a citizen w/ free speech rights, you know.
Posted by LuvThatCO2 (187 comments )
Link Flag
cnet spin
If you read the real AP story, you'll see that the congressman was more concerned about New Orleans, Louisiana, or government officials paying off Google to make it look like the reconstruction was progressing better than it is. CNET seems to pick and choose what "news" they like to report...
Posted by Sunflare98 (34 comments )
Link Flag
Worst yet, you were born
I agree with your 'congressmen has no right' statement, but uhh, idiot, how is it the government's fault that a hurricane happened? Let me explain something pretty simple: the people that were still there were idiots. They stayed there, even with warning that a hurricane was going to hit hard. How come the intelligent people left and the dumb ones didn't? I don't feel sorry for those people because no one should feel dumb for stupidity. The government isn't our baby sitter. If something crazy like that happens, oh freakin' well. The government should care less. I didn't really like the fact that my tax dollars were going on these people who were using it for strippers, purses, dvds, etc.

I live in Texas and we recently just had a tornado and I didn't see a huge "WE NEED TO SAVE THE PEOPLE IN TEXAS AND GET THEM JOBS AND GIVE THEM $2000!!". And if my house were to have been blown over, my stuff trashed, etc, I wouldn't expect the government to do anything because stuff happens and I should have insurance on my house. But let me guess... it doesn't count because it didn't hit television.
Posted by DryvBy (7 comments )
Link Flag
I cant even begin to understand...
I cant even begin to understand why Google thought the pre-storm images were a good idea. Even if they were better quality, they were certainly less accurate.
Posted by LuvThatCO2 (187 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not stated but possibily implied...
is the concept that Google Earth was generally swapping older high resolution images back in to replace newer lower resolutions and the fact that the images could be prior to a major disaster wasn't even thought of. It's also possible that some of the post-Christmas Tsunami images could have been replaced by this mechanism as well but hasn't been noticed/reported yet.
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Link Flag
 

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