Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why Has Google Replaced Post-Katrina Photos With Pre-Katrina Photos on Its Map Portal?

House subcommittee blasts Google over pre-Katrina map images.

"If we assume that the purpose of the government is to serve and improve the welfare of the entire body of citizens, the Bush administration has clearly been a major failure. It has served a minority, and the majority have not only failed to share in the gains yielded, they have suffered from reduced rights, freedoms, greater economic instability and stress, and a diminution of expectations and sense of hope for the future."

The AP reports:
Google's replacement of post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its map portal with images of the region before the storm does a "great injustice" to the storm's victims, a congressional subcommittee said.

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and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.

The subcommittee cited an Associated Press report on the images.

"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-N.C., wrote in a letter to Schmidt.

Swapping the post-Katrina images and the ruin they revealed for others showing an idyllic city dumbfounded many locals and even sparked suspicions that the company and civic leaders were conspiring to portray the area's recovery progressing better than it is.

Andrew Kovacs, a Google spokesman, said the company had received the letter but Schmidt had no immediate response.
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 is a surreal experience of scrolling across a 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.

John Hanke, Google's director for maps and satellite imagery, said "a combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity" go into deciding what imagery to provide.

"The latest update from one of our information providers substantially improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area," Hanke said in a news release about the switch.

Kovacs said efforts are under way to use more current imagery.

It was not clear when the current images replaced views of the city taken after Katrina struck Aug. 29, 2005, flooding an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans.

Miller asked Google to brief his staff by April 6 on who made the decision to replace the imagery with pre-Katrina images, and to disclose if Google was contacted by the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey or any other government entity about changing the imagery.

"To use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest," Miller said.

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."

Google does provide imagery of New Orleans and the region following Katrina through its more specialized service called Google Earth.

Out of sight, out of mind.

That's the innocent explanation. Even if whomever did it had the best of intentions, or no conscious intention at all. Even if it was just an impulse to put New Orleans' best foot forward for the Google-camera - a knee-jerk reaction to an internal sense of discomfort over a situation that resists solution.

Just as dysfunctional families set aside their differences, smile and say "cheese" for the annual Christmas photograph, we tend to forget that it's people making decisions at corporations. They bring to the job the same coping mechanisms they've developed in problematic personal relationships.

Unfortunately, it's what those who are in powerful positions to make change happen, those who are charged with fixing it, who agreed to take on the job of fixing it and aren't (for whatever reason), are counting on . . . . When they can no longer count on the public's apathy.

"Each day that passes without an impeachment inquiry into the Bush administration, Americans' standards lower, expectations of government's responsibility and action by elected officials extinguish. Democracy ceases, and along with it, respect for rule of law."

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