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01/04/2007

Google Earth and Katrina: Can you spin a satellite photo?

Search Engine Land has a great post about a spat between residents of New Orleans who think that Google Earth has replaced images of the city's Katrina-scarred streets with older, less harrowing pictures.

Danny Sullivan took a closer look and discovered that this was not only the case on Google but also on Yahoo Maps, while Ask Maps seems to include a mix of pre- and post-Hurricane images.

According to a report in US Today:

Pete Gerica, a fisherman who lives in eastern New Orleans, said he printed pictures of his waterside homestead from Google to use in his arguments with insurance adjusters.

"I think a lot of stuff they're doing right now is smoke and mirrors because tourism is so off," Gerica said. "It might be somebody's weird spin on things looking better."

Local politicians have called on Google to update its images to reflect reality.

It is unlikely that  the search engines are colluding with dark forces trying to spin the way that people see New Orleans via satellite, but it is interesting though to see maps data as influential content with this kind of an issue. People are becoming increasingly familiar with using these kinds of applications when trying to understand news stories or issues - they are effectively part of the DIY news mix in the online age.

As Sullivan says:

At the very least, this points out the need for images being show to be dated somehow, so people know exactly when they were shot. This isn't the first time the issue has come up. Let's get some dates out there, so the guesswork can stop.

He notes:

Certainly, many people turned to these maps immediately after the Katrina devastation to understand what happened. Google made special efforts to get updated images online, and it wasn't alone. Many residents of New Orleans clearly feel forgotten or abandoned after the damage. Perhaps the search engines should consider keeping updated images of the area as a priority. That would certainly make it easier for progress -- or lack of it -- to stay foremost in everyone's minds.

Seems to me that services like Google Earth are going to need an editorial policy pretty soon, and to keep people updated about the decisions they make.

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