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Google's View of D.C. Melds New and Sharp, Old and Fuzzy

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Nikolas R. Schiller

Nikolas R. Schiller


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Google's View of D.C. Melds New and Sharp, Old and Fuzzy


By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007; Page C01

As you take a bird's-eye tour of downtown Washington, compliments of Google Maps' updated satellite feature, you hit a haze over the Mall.

Suddenly, instead of crisp, yellow taxis, white buses and red pickup trucks, the vehicles look like little blobs. Foggy Bottom gets really, well, foggy. People casting distinct shadows walk out of the Lincoln Memorial and into a blur of fuzzy steps.

Rub your eyes and look again. Maybe your computer is slow. Perhaps on the day these images were taken, it was really smoggy in that part of town.

Wait. This wouldn't have anything to do with national security, would it?

Well, kind of.

When Google updated its satellite maps of Washington in June, it had two options: Use the newest, most detailed aerial photos from a government agency that blocks such top-security spots as the White House and the U.S. Capitol, or continue to use older, less-detailed images from a private company that doesn't block out anything.

The compromise? Google chose the new maps for most of the city but spliced in the older, fuzzier ones for about one-sixth of the District to include an unblocked view of the president's home and the Capitol.

But the area in the older images also includes most of Ward 2: the Mall, the State Department, George Washington University, Union Station and several neighborhoods, including Dupont Circle, Shaw and Chinatown. That means the convention center that was demolished in 2004 appears intact and the National World War II Memorial that was completed in 2004 appears under construction.

The older images frustrate cartographer Nikolas Schiller, 26, who takes an artistic approach to mapmaking and is working on an atlas. Schiller, who lives in the U Street area, said that too much of the District is represented using the older photos, diminishing the amount of information -- and thrill -- that aerial photos can provide.

"Maps are about power," he said. "Maps decide what gets developed, who lives where, how people get around."

The newer photos on Google's map of Washington are from 2005 Geological Survey satellite images released in March. Those photos were updated from images released in 2002 and are much more detailed. Vehicles have structure. People have shadows. Buildings have shingles. Trees have branches.

But in the 2005 Geological Survey images, the White House is blocked out by a white rectangle, and when you zoom in on the Capitol and the Washington Monument, they become a flurry of dots. Rather than use those photos, Google used uncensored images of the area, including the White House and Capitol, from a commercial vendor.

To obtain permission to fly over the District and take photos, the Geological Survey promised the Secret Service that as soon as the plane landed, images that could "jeopardize national security" would be deleted or edited, Geological Survey spokesman Doug Spencer said.

"When you think about it from a military perspective or a terrorist perspective," he said, "you don't want to put that information out there."

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the agency took aerial photos of 133 urban areas across the country; it repeated the process in 2005 for many of the cities. Each city could determine which sites needed protection and, therefore, less clarity on the map -- some picked water treatment plants, military bases, power plants or government buildings, but there was no consistency.

"It was really at their discretion," Spencer said.

In June, Google Maps http://(maps.google.com) and Google Earth http://(earth.google.com/) updated their satellite images of Washington and several other cities using the 2005 Geological Survey images, and Schiller began to explore. He selected the District, changed the setting to satellite, zoomed in as tightly as he could and began touring the city.

He soon realized that some parts were much clearer than others. He checked the source of the images, noted on the bottom of the map window, and concluded that the District was made up of images from different sources and years.

Google receives its photos from government agencies and commercial imaging companies. Imagery managers decide which sources offer the best resolution and most up-to-date information. For the map of Washington, Google opted for the highest-quality photos available rather than the newest information.

Schiller said he thinks Google should just use the 2002 map for the small spots the government has censored rather than the whole downtown area.

And he said he's puzzled that any level of blurriness is needed by anyone -- even the government -- especially because he recently took a detailed tour of a nuclear reactor south of Detroit via Google Earth.

"Where is the concept of national security in this?" he asked.

Nikolas R. Schiller

Nikolas R. Schiller


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I forgot to include the link to my website which shows the extent to Google's censorship. Of note, is that anyone can still download the areas not shown by Google directly from the USGS.

Matthew Hampton

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No doubt this discussion becomes even more interesting by the fact that Google just purchased ImageAmerica.

Now that Google owns an imaging company they have direct control of what's flown and captured. I hope they stay true to their philosophy.

co-cartographic creator of boringmaps.com

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