A congressional subcommittee accused Google on Friday of “airbrushing history” by replacing post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its popular map portal with images of the region taken before the storm’s devastation.
Citing an Associated Press report from Thursday, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.
“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 Friday 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.
Virtual trip through pristine city
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.
Quest for answers
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.