People displaced by Hurrican Katrina are increasingly turning to Google Earth, Google's satellite imagery program, to find out what has happened to their homes and neighborhoods. The New York Times reports that Google has been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to quickly update the images in Google Earth.
By the end of last week, a grass-rooogle ts effort had identified scores of posthurricane images, determined the geographical coordinates and visual landmarks to enable their integration into the Google Earth program, and posted them to a Google Earth bulletin board - the place ZuluOne turned for help.
Taking inspiration from the online volunteers, Google, NASA and Carnegie Mellon University had by Saturday night made the effort more formal, incorporating nearly 4,000 posthurricane images into the Google Earth database (at earth.google.com) for public use.
"It was 100 percent a reaction to what they were doing," John Hanke, a general manager who is in charge of the Google Earth service, said on Sunday. "They knew about the NOAA data before Google did."
The ready availability of such images to any Web user shows not only the reach of the Internet but also the strides that have been made in the photography. Mike Aslaksen, acting chief of NOAA's Remote Sensing Division, said that while it took a week to process and make public images taken of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attacks four years ago, the post-Katrina images have been available within 24 hours.
They are not satellite photos, but aerial images taken from a Cessna Citation jet. Still, they can be readily patched into the Google Earth database as overlays.
At NOAA, they realize that the public can help provide huge public services if allowed access to data. Applications like Google's, coupled with government-suppled geospatial data, can allow people to use, share and consume information in cutting-edge ways.
Of the many lessons learned since the 2001 terrorist attacks, "one is that there is an overwhelming desire for geospatial data," said Mr. Aslaksen of NOAA. "It's become a tool as necessary as a word processor."
The intended uses of the NOAA images, of course, are official. For instance, the photos are helping the Army Corps of Engineers to assess levee damage, Mr. Aslaksen said, and NOAA has used them to determine major shoreline changes that might pose a risk, and to see if piers or vessels have sunk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also used the images for damage assessment.
But Mr. Aslaksen said he welcomed the popular use. "We thought it important to give the public access to the data," he said.