Google updates maps after Katrina 'airbrushing' incident

Under fire for replacing post-storm images with older, higher-res shots, search giant installs 2006 aerial photographs of Gulf Coast region.

Accused by a Democrat in the U.S. Congress of "airbrushing history," Google said it has now replaced pre-Hurricane Katrina satellite images of the Gulf Coast region with more recent aerial photographs.

The search giant came under fire late last week after the Associated Press reported the company had traded imagery documenting the August 2005 storm's devastating effects in its mapping services for higher-resolution images depicting pre-hurricane calm.

Google on Sunday said it had no intention of "rewriting history" but nonetheless was able to "expedite" the processing of 2006 aerial photography data for New Orleans that is of equally high quality. That update went up on Sunday evening, the company said.

The initial news attracted concerns from Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), chairman of a House of Representatives science oversight subcommittee. On Friday, he sent a letter (PDF) demanding an explanation for the changes from CEO Eric Schmidt.

Miller was unavailable for comment on Monday, as he is currently visiting the Darfur region as part of Congress' spring recess. Despite a recent Google blog post that attempts to clarify the situation, the subcommittee still expects responses to Miller's letter, said Luann Canipe, communications director for the congressman.

"The congressman's concern is that it was fundamentally dishonest," Canipe said in a telephone interview. "Certainly the most basic question is, did someone ask you to change the maps and if so who was it?"

Google said it planned to send a response to the congressman's queries on Monday. The company confirmed it had swapped out the post-Katrina images in September, but it maintained that decision hinged on its interest in providing its users with high-quality images. The changes were part of a broader update that "substantially improved the imagery detail for dozens of cities around the world, including New Orleans," a representative said in a statement e-mailed to CNET News.com on Monday.

Even after it replaced the post-Katrina images, users could continue to view Katrina imagery captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--along with map overlays such as damage assessments and Red Cross shelters--at a dedicated site, said John Hanke, director of Google Earth and Maps.

In his Sunday morning entry on the official corporate blog, Hanke said Google found the recent comments a bit surprising. "Our goal throughout has been to produce a global earth database of the best quality," he wrote, "accounting for timeliness, resolution, cloud cover, light conditions, and color balancing."

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