Please calm down about Google Maps in New Orleans

If there was any doubt that Google”s new position in the mindset of America is “rich whipping boy”, that”s been clearly shown in the past few days of this “Google thinks Katrina never happened” crap. For those of you too caught up in the endless sea of lame April Fools” stories online, here”s the skinny – somebody noticed that the aerial imagery in Google Earth and Google Maps showed New Orleans before the failures of the federal levees during Hurricane Katrina. They also remembered that there was a time when Google Earth and Google Maps showed really revealing photos of the flooding brought on by the levee failures. Thus, in the logic of the masses, Google is involved in some kind of revisionist history.

As best as I can tell (thanks to Google News), this started with an AP story on March 29 headlined “Google Goes Back to Pre-Katrina Maps” that was nothing more than AP reporter Cain Burdeau noticing that aerial imagery in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast pre-dated the arrival of Katrina. That story was picked up in media outlets across the country and around the world. For the March 30 news cycle, a TV-version of the story added the phrase “Google recently replaced satellite imagery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with pictures taken before the storm” without any kind of attribution of the “recently” statement.

On Friday, the frenzy had grown to the point that a Congressional subcommittee dragged Google CEO Eric Schmidt up to explain what one congressman called “airbrushing history”.

Yesterday, the company announced that it had pushed out new imagery of New Orleans and explained why – six months ago (way to pay attention, media) – the main aerial imagery of New Orleans changed to show pre-Katrina views. Was it dumb for Google to choose higher-resolution pre-Katrina images over what they had in place before that change? Yes. But this only demonstrates the company”s engineering mindset and lack of social skills, not an evil intent.

All of this shows two things – the not-so-hidden desire to beat up on Google and a complete lack of understanding of the online maps & imagery world.

Beating up on Google:

- Did anybody bother to notice that Yahoo Maps, Microsoft Local Live and Ask City all have pre-Katrina images? Yahoo Maps still has a bigger market share than Google and also has pre-Katrina images, so why weren”t they picked on? MapQuest, by the way, has post-Katrina images.

- Does nobody remember the extraordinary lengths Google developers and the Google Earth community went to in providing near-realtime imagery immediately after Katrina? Google Earth was to Katrina what CNN was to the first Gulf War – a unique and invaluable resource that found its highest purpose during a time of crisis. I remember being on the phone with my friend Dave while he was holed up in Houston; browsing through NOAA images via Google Earth trying to help him find out the fate of his life back home. For a city in exile, those early images so well-integrated into Google Earth and Google Maps were the only bits of information available about specifics on the ground. It”s shameful for the media and politicians to jump on this perceived slap by Google in the wake of that.

Not understanding the Maps & Imagery world:

- Contrary to what seems to be popular belief, you cannot carry your laptop outside, load Google Maps and see yourself in the front yard. Map and imagery databases are complex and huge elements that are in constant update mode. It”s just that the world is big, so it takes a while to get back to your neighborhood. Here in Atlanta, Google Maps knows Glenwood Park”s roads exist, but still shows a dirt pit in the imagery. Accurate? Only partly.

- Imagery is the wow factor of maps, not the product. Online maps are meant to be maps; the satellite imagery (and things like Microsoft”s BirdsEye imagery) are meant to be differentiators that draw users from the competition. Online mapping has become vastly more useful in the past few years, but imagery is still mostly just a bolt-on feature.

- The tools are there to get what you want from imagery. Google Earth has a slightly different mission than online maps. It is intended to meld together collections of imagery, location information, etc. from company developers and – more importantly – the GIS community. If you want detailed imagery of just about any place, it”s out there.

- You”re spoiled. Carry yourself back to 1997 and find a satellite or aerial image of your house. I”ll wait …
TerraServer started the revolution in online imagery only a decade ago, and now aerial imagery and relevant location content is inescapable. And by and large it”s free. Online mapping has evolved amazingly in just the past three years, and today we have multi-view mashups like zillow.com that are leveraging the power of mapping, imagery and data for the benefit of consumers (and companies like zillow). It”s easy to forget that not too long ago, this was your only choice for an online map:

So, please, everybody just lay off this Google “revisionist history” garbage.

And I guess I shouldn”t mention that Waveland, Mississippi doesn”t really look like this anymore.

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