Stark relief: White House, VP's residence now visible in Google Maps

Google drops maps that censor federal residences in favor of new, clear versions.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

During the Bush/Cheney administration, aerial views of the White House and vice president's residence, the United State Naval Observatory, were obscured in Google Earth and Google Maps. The outlines of the White House were visible, but the roof of it and of the nearby Old Executive Office Building were replaced with featureless gray slabs. The grounds of the VP's house were even more obscured: pixelated so much you couldn't really tell what you were looking at.

Under the Obama administration, clarity and openness has returned to these buildings in Google Earth and Google Maps. The White House and surrounding buildings have regained their rooftops (although the snipers and other security gear reportedly on 24/7 watch on the building are not discernible). The layout of the Naval Observatory grounds is now just about as clear as the surrounding area.

I can see your house from here.

What's with the change? A spokesperson at Google wouldn't tell me much, but we know this: The Google geo team swapped out the image database they had been using, the one with the fuzzy images, with a new one. The old one came from the U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency. The maps arrived at Google pre-fuzzed. The new one, with no censorship, came from Digital Globe, a private company.

The changeover happened on January 18, two days before President Obama's inauguration, however Google had received the Digital Globe data prior to that. The change was part of a "regularly scheduled update," I was told. The schedule is not public, but you can keep up to date on the changes the Google geo teams makes public on their blog.

My Google contact would not agree with me that the changeover had anything to do with politics. Rather, she said, Google is constantly evaluating the quality of various data sets available to them, and simply decided that the Digital Globe data was now better than the USGS dataset. I don't believe it, but regardless, I'm glad to see that our public ceremonial buildings are now viewable by, you know, the public.

First spotted on: ValleyWag.

See also 51 things you aren't allowed to see on Google Maps, on ITSecurity.