Saturday, March 31, 2007

Google Discovers Consequences (yet again)

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and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.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


Anonymous said...

Being in the mapping industry (not Google), I make two observations:

1) Google made a mistake that inflamed passions, as map data is capable of with surprising effectiveness.

2) It probably was made carelessly, in the process of handling millions of satellite photos. No conspiracy.

Think of it: is it imaginable that Google slipped in old photos so people would "forget" about Katrina? If they thought about it with any depth, they would've realized that it would stir passions. No - I imagine they have one or two overworked people who manage the satellite photos for the whole world, and made a momentary lapse of judgment in the bustle of loading up images. And while any individual lapse of judgment is possible to avoid, you're going to make some mistake sooner or later that's going to be perceived as an injustice. (And if it isn't, then people aren't using your mapping service ....)

The government should be concerned that their own mapping service:

is used by hardly any normal citizen, because frankly, it doesn't work that well, in spite of spending millions of taxpaper dollars.

Unknown said...

Very interesting comments. I am a native New Orleanian. The actions of Google maps struck me as heartless and cruel. We already feel neglected and forgotten by our own country. Now we are erased by Google. Less than nothing, valueless. Who are the people making these decisions? I would really like to know.

Anonymous said...

Google did show a lapse of judgment, yes, but I really doubt they were intentionally cruel. I know something about this field, because I work for a competing map service, and work closely with the people who load up satellite images. It's helpful to understand the economics of satellite imagery and commercial mapping services.

It costs half a billion dollars to put up a high resolution photo satellite. To recoup the costs, the photos taken are typically initially sold to someone who has a need for coverage of a particular region at a particular time. I believe the cost is more than $10,000 per image. This significantly more than Google or any other mapping service can justify as an expense for the broad areas they cover under normal circumstances.

Once the photos are no longer timely, the satellite imagery companies are willing to sell the photos at a significant discount. It's those photos Google, Yahoo (, Microsoft (, Mapquest (, and Ask Maps ( purchase rights to make available on their services, with a budget of a few million a year - that cost can be justified, and that's why you can have this remarkable service for free.
If the economics don't work out - no photos. (Remember - they make money by providing a "yellow pages" sort of service, with targeted advertising.) Much of the country is covered by photos that are a couple years old, and sometimes, in rural areas, a decade or more old. Microsoft embarrassed itself a couple years ago by showing the World Trade Center still standing, and the HQ of Apple Computer missing - even though it was built 10 years before. *None* of these mapping services - so far as I can tell - have post-Katrina photos of New Orleans (Ask Maps has a weird montage of flooded New Orleans images with pre-Katrina images.) Google's getting heat because they are the best known for their satellite imagery, and they took the special expense of paying for the flooded New Orleans photos 1 1/2 years ago - and reaped a ton of positive publicity from the choice.

Wait a week or two. Google will probably have new photos loaded, with apologies left and right. They have to - it's bad business at this point not to. If they had loaded old photos of central Iowa, say, no one would've blinked - but New Orleans is a sensitive issue.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I share Alan's doubt that Google was intentionally cruel. However, I think his scenario indicates a disregard for the value of the editing process and the need for skilled editing, a disregard that I usually attribute to Wikipedia:

Given that the original theme of this post had to do with the need for responsibility, I shall at least wonder whether that disregard can be attributed to Google's technology-solves-all arrogance. If Google thinks that they will be able to set things straight "with apologies left and right," then I have to wonder if any lessons-learned will come from this experience. If not, then a flood of apologies will carry about as much weight as none at all.

Anonymous said...

As I thought: they scrambled all weekend to get newer photos up: