Google seems to be getting a lesson in why a responsible information provider cannot make decisions on the basis of what's cool; and the lesson seems to be coming from a relatively great height: the House Committee on Science and Technology. As Cain Burdeau reported for Associated Press, the lesson concerns the satellite images of New Orleans being used for Google Maps and Google Earth:
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and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.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.
The only explanation appears to come from the director responsible for these images:
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 [an "official" Google spokesperson] said efforts are under way to use more current imagery.
I suppose the best way to interpret this is that someone in Hanke's division decided that resolution and clarity trump imagery date, which, in this case, seems to imply that really cool high-quality images win out over more accurate ones.
Kovacs also acknowledged having received Miller's letter with the reply that Schmidt had no immediate response. This is probably a good thing. Schmidt seems to be building up a track record for shooting off his mouth with provocations that almost always seem to be aimed at some aspect of the District of Columbia. Then, of course, there is the current administration's track record on all things related to Katrina, which seems to be the primary reason why Miller wants to know more about what is actually happening:
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.
On the basis of Hanke's remarks, I am not sure where the fault lies. It looks as if the images come from a third-party "information provider;" and, for all we know, they were the ones "persuaded" by the government to provide less "embarrassing" images of New Orleans. Nevertheless, Miller is right to put Schmidt on the hot seat. At the very least there seems to have been a failure to review that third-party content and assess that content on anything other than image quality. As Elizabeth Hollerman, Miller's staff counsel, put it, people tend to take what they get from Google as "the official word;" and Google should respond to such a "public trust" with greater editorial responsibility. It may have been Hanke's blunder; but, in the tradition of Harry Truman, the buck from such responsibility stops at Schmidt's desk. If Miller decides to turn this into a trip to the woodshed, the outcome may be better for all of us.