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

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

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.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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