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Google Maps and Accountability

April 07, 2005

The ease of use of Google Maps’ new satellite imagery integration is going to have some interesting implications.

A few days ago, Google integrated its Keyhole technology into Google Maps, allowing an easy one-click switch between map data and satellite imagery.

It’s a mind-blowing use of technology. If you’ve played with the full version of Keyhole before, the novelty is a bit dampened (especially since the web data is quite a bit lower in resolution), but the ability to toggle back and forth between map and satellite views is insanely useful for establishing a sense of scale.

Interesting things are happening already. Matt Haughey has been exploring and annotating what he’s finding. Jeff Veen thinks it’s a fulfillment of an Orwellian prophesy, by the people instead of by the government. Privacy concerns for the individual? Well, there are bound to be those. Read the comments on Jeff’s “Google is Watching” post for intelligent rebuttals — it’s not even close to real time data for one, and Flickr has much more potential as a surveillance tool anyway.

But corporate and environmental whistle-blowing? Let’s kick that off right in my own backyard. The province of British Columbia has a huge and thriving forestry industry. There are a lot of things one could say about trade tariffs and exporting practices and pine beetles and other business concerns, as they’ve been in the media lately. I have mixed feelings about that industry in general, as it is important to the local economy, and I’ve done my share of work for companies that earn their money from cutting down trees.

But that’s as far as I’ll go to defend it. A picture is worth a thousand words and all that, so here’s a 4000 word essay on what the forestry industry is doing in British Columbia, as of whatever the date was when the satellite snapped these. Click through any image to get to the Google Maps bookmark of the same, it’s worth it to move around a bit and get a sheer sense of scale (and see how much more there is to this than what I’ve depicted in these 4 shots.)

Close-up view
City of Kamloops
Wider View

What’s it like on the ground in one of these clear cut areas? Well, if you’re lucky and the operators of the cut have actually replanted anything, it’s generally a young glade of small but healthy trees.

If they haven’t, it’s ugly. The bleak ground is covered with gnarled and torn wood left behind to rot in the elements, and muddy where the root systems that used to keep the soil together have died. It’s disgustingly barren, while at the same time being impassable due to the amount of dead vegetation littering the destroyed ecosystem. I wish I had some photos of that, perhaps I’ll see what I can dig up.

April 07, 02h

For what it’s worth, I’ve got a collection of interesting Google Maps sights here:

I’ll be updating it as I find interesting new spots.

Peter G. says:
April 07, 03h

Mapquest also used to let you view satellite images of their maps, but that was a while ago. And of course, you couldn’t scroll around like you can with Google.

Also, I was under the impression that forestry, when done correctly, is actually good for the environment. See here:

Dave S. says:
April 07, 03h

Peter, there were a few comments on Jeff Veen’s article along the same lines. MapQuest and others have had satellite photos for ages, it’s just the Google UI that’s turning heads this time around. I’m not sure how the data sets compare though.

Re: forestry. Perhaps. It should probably be noted that the publication you linked is put out by a Forestry society. I’ve heard the same arguments before though, and I’m neither agreeing nor disagreeing with them. Seeing what I see on the maps, I’d have a hard time believing the scale of forestry in this province is healthy.

April 07, 04h

Wow, using satellite imagery to put the effects of logging into perspective. Now that’s cool (in a sad way).

My Dad lives in Southern Oregon, an area that is heavily reliant on the logging industry and the visible effects of this are everywhere (from the ground). I went ahead and checked out that part of Oregon with Google Maps and it looks virgin compared to the land you have shown around Vancouver. That is very sad.

See (Southern Oregon):,or&spn=0.214233,0.336113&t=k&hl=en

John Y. says:
April 07, 05h

It’s true that forest needs maintenence to be healthy. Mother Nature used to take care of this “herself” by means of forest fires — but the U.S. has had a policy of putting out fires for most of the 20th century.

Harvesting can also be helpful, but if we’re talking solely in terms of forest health, the ideal things to harvest aren’t marketable — it’s dead trees, diseased trees and underbrush.

Selective harvesting of healthy wood can fit into an ecosystem without destroying it, but clearcutting as it is practiced is never good for the ecosystem. The closest we could get, if we want to clearcut, would be to cut, then burn the whole area with a controlled burn and re-seed to simulate a catastrophic forest fire, but it’s far cheaper for the lumber companies to just clear-cut, so they generally won’t do anything else unless forced to by government.

Beth says:
April 07, 05h

I have a really good picture of a clear cut here. Okay, so not great, because my camera sucked, but it shows the ugliness. That hill used to be full of trees.

April 07, 05h

> U.S. has had a policy of putting out fires for most of the 20th century

Not in National Parks, at least until the fire grows out of control.

As Dave shows, this isn’t just a US problem.

Beth says:
April 07, 06h

I forgot to include the url!

April 07, 06h

This is a great post, Dave, thanks for those images. Forestry is just one of those gut-wrenching things that you realise is a necessity, but is still way overdone, and the end product often misused and wasted.

I wonder if wood will one day be grown hydroponically, like those tomatoes? Wouldn’t that be weird…

Chris says:
April 07, 10h

For irony’s sake I searched flicker until I found a picture of logging tied to British Columbia. Here it is:

April 07, 11h

I catch clearcuts in Oregon every time I head out into the hills to hike or run. Here’s a shot I took last year, around the Silver Falls area, outside of Salem, OR.

Brian Dixon says:
April 07, 11h

I really don’t think you zoomed out far enough to show the full impact of the forestry industry.

The image basically shows the majority of the northern half of interior BC. The Coast Mountains in the bottom-left side of the image and the Rocky’s in the top-right. Prince George is in the bottom-right corner. Even if you were to zoom out to a view of the entire province, you could still see the impact of the cuts. The forested areas in Alberta are treated the same.

I’m studying geography at the University of Calgary and look at satellite imagery all the time. Its funny how quickly you become desensitized to clearcuts because they are in basically every image you see of a forest environment.

On another note: One problem I have with Google Maps and most of the online map services is that they don’t have scales. I don’t think it would be a hard calculation to put on a ratio scale, yet it is a very critical component of any map (ex: 1:50,000).

April 08, 01h

Thanks for the informative post helping to expose some of the devastation from the logging industry. I think the general public has no idea how much of our forests are being wiped out. Being exposed to imagery would help. The clear cuts aren’t that apparent just driving around, at least here in Oregon. I think we have some sort of law that defines scenic buffers (which are very narrow, something like 200 feet) but what are they there for except to hide the truth from the public?

Anyway the Google Maps imagery is certainly cool. I got lost for several hours just checking stuff out the other day. The view Mount St. Helens is one of my favorites -,wa&ll=46.211243,-122.186852&spn=0.232430,0.239983&t=k&hl=en)

April 08, 02h

Mappy (for European maps) also have a similar service for ages, although it was made in Macromedia Flash. But you can also move in the map in “Satellite mode”, and switch from satellite to normal map with a convenient slide. :) if you’re interested (look for “Eiffel tower” in Paris, for example :-); the slide is in the top left corner.

Ara says:
April 08, 05h

Wow! Now THAT’s a great use of technology. Good thinking.

odograph says:
April 08, 05h

I know how they hide these things from the main road, but it is still a little shocking to see from this perspective. I drove through Prince George a couple years ago and you can’t see much of this.

When I got back from that trip I was telling a friend about how they “hide” clear cuts, and he wouldn’t really believe me. Good work on the google-photomaps, they should help.

BTW, I think it is even a little more nefarious down in Oregon … where they tend to grow beautiful replanted forests right along the road… and leave you to believe they do that everywhere.

David Robarts says:
April 08, 06h

>> U.S. has had a policy of putting out fires for most of the 20th century

> Not in National Parks, at least until the fire grows out of control.

It is true that natural fires in National Parks (I’m not sure how National Forests fires are managed) are now allowed to burn (unless it is expected to grow out of control), however, the policy was to put out fires in until the latter decades of the 20th century. The huge, out of control fire in Yellowstone in 1988 was in part because there was a large buildup of fuel. On average, the Ponderosa Pine forest that covered much of the western United States would have small natural fires every few years keeping down the fuel that allows fires to grow out of control today. Mechanical thinning is important if these forests are to remain healthy without fires.

Nicole says:
April 08, 08h

Unfortunately, these photos are tangible evidence of a legacy too much focus on volume rather than higher value products. If we’re going to decrease the unsustainable rate of cut, but maintain forestry employment levels, we need to value-add every tree cut down in BC. A continued expansion of raw log exports will increase the prevalence of such pictures into the future.

Simon says:
April 08, 09h

Such a shame. As you say, it’ll be interesting what sort of impact the ‘availability’ to this kind of information Google provides, has on public opinion if it were to be taken advantage of well.

Another site similar, though only covers Spain and uses Java, though no less interesting:

April 08, 09h

Mezzoblue has been under my “Design” folder in NetNewsWire for a while, now I may have to move it to the “Work” folder. :)

I’m the web designer for Rainforest Action Network ( and we have been campaigning for change in giant logging companies around the world for the last twenty years. We’ve had same major victories, too. Boise-Cascade signed a policy agreement with us to stop logging old growth forests just last year.

I guess I’m saying that as nasty as these photos look, there’s no need to feel completely helpless. RAN is currently campaigning against Weyerhaeuser, a major player in the Pacific Northwest and it’s not hard to get involved.

We’ve actually got an action coming up soon in Seattle. If you show up, Dave, I’ll buy your book. Deal?

(Though I have to admit I’ll probably buy your book anyway as soon as I finish Cederholm’s.)

Manny Fleurmond says:
April 08, 09h

Will Google maps actually let you look at government locations, like the White house or Fort Knox or the Pentagon?
Creepy stuff.

giovanni says:
April 08, 10h

this should be simple. but it’s not working for me. how do i capture the url of the zoomed in location?

Hilary says:
April 08, 11h

Anyone know of any good, reputable programs for reforesting? Places that people or businesses could donate to and be sure that their money is being used wisely to plant new trees?

Since it’s not likely that the loggers would stop, how do we make things better in the meantime? Are they selling the land that they have stripped?

Just some thoughts to ponder and talk on.

Brian D says:
April 08, 11h

The US government does withhold the right to use what’s called “shutter control” to limit collection and distribution of satellite imagery. The problem is, it only applies to US-based satellites such as LandSat, ORBVIEW-3, IKONOS and Quickbird.

There are many other satellites out there that can produce high spatial resolution imagery such as the French SPOT satellite series, the Indian IRS, and EROS. All of them outside of US control.

Because of this, there is very little reason for the US to implement shutter control.

China recently launched what is believed to be a high spatial resolution satellite called ZY-2, though there’s very little info about it as you can imagine.

April 08, 12h

Wow. That’s absolutely insane. I posted this: last night, without having seen your post. Crazy serendipity.

April 08, 12h

Dave, I’m moving back to Vancouver Island in June, the clear cutting there is equally as devastating.

There were some beautiful spots that have just been ruined by the mowing down of the forestry (the drive to Tofino springs to mind).

andrew says:
April 09, 10h

Just found evidence of massive runoff pollution near Tijuana, Mexico. Check out this map and then zoom out a bit to see the runoff plume trail down the coast. Pretty nasty.,-117.118249&spn=0.033774,0.059824&t=k&hl=en

April 11, 01h

I think it would be remiss of me to not mention Multimap’s similar functionality. The difference is that Multimap lays a semi-transparent map on top of the aerial photo. For example, Waterloo Station in London:

ernie says:
April 11, 05h

Two great spoofs of the supreme power of Google Maps:

Google Maps uncover secrets of Silicon Valley corporations

Office worker uses Google Maps to pinpoint exact location in cubicle

Scott says:
April 11, 12h

I would assume the clearcutting seen in these photos is from 2001/2002, as apparently a lot of this satellite imagery is a few years old.

(As a side-note, I used to work at a sawmill in BC while in highschool.)

If and when more detailed imagery is made available, I wouldn’t be surprised if people were to start hunting for BC’s other famous “cash crops” via satellite.

Rob says:
April 12, 05h

I was thinking this very same thing the other day while browsing google’s satellite imagery of British Columbia. Of course, the extent of the damage is clear to anyone who flies over in a plane on a sunny day. I hope these images get much more publicity…

justin says:
April 12, 08h

I was checking out the clearcuts in our province the other day as well via google maps… It’s gross, but I too am desensitized to a degree, as I was a treeplanter at one point and a cutblock became a place to make a bit of money. A whole lot of my friends rely on planting, brushing or fire fighting in the summer to sustain themselves and I am glad that’s at least an option to do that type of work if need be. The forestry industry is so ingrained into our lives, not just with paper and lumber, but employment in general especially for us here in BC. It can’t keep up like this forever though.

29 - Good call! Damn…

Jim says:
April 12, 10h

Disclaimer: I used to live in Prince George, and I used to work in the forestry industry. I also consider myself to be something of an environmentalist as well, so there.

I don’t think I can defend everything the industry does. There’s definitely a lot of bad stuff happening, and if the people and government don’t control the industry, it sure the hell isn’t going to do it by itself.

That said…

Keep in mind that the source satellite imagery for these maps are not showing the true colours that you’d actually see on the ground. In that way, it’s somewhat deceptive.

The purpose of satellite imagery is so it can be used for analysis, so they’re going to colour it to show contrast. They’ve just picked fairly natural colouring so it looks somewhat pretty and lifelike - but keep in mind that it is not.

The extent of the logging is clearly detailed. What isn’t so clear from the imagery is how well the various differently coloured areas are regenerating.

Looking at the imagery, it looks like all those areas have just been cut, and are not regenerating. But if you physically have been to many of those areas, you’re going to see forests that have been growing back for 5, 10, 15, or 20 years. Of course, in the interior (Prince George area), it takes 70+ years before a block is going to be ready to be reharvested again. On the coast, it might only take 30 years.

Use the data for the purpose it was meant for - for doing some hard-core technical analysis. This data could be used to quantify the environmental damage and policy tradeoffs. That’s what the particular piece of imagery we’re looking at was designed for - not to solicit an emotional response.

No doubt about it, a forest ecosystem that is “in production” is not going to be the same as a preserved all-natural one. One the other hand, we all use wood and paper products in our daily lives, and this is where they come from.

Brian Dixon says:
April 13, 01h

In response to Jim’s comments:

It is true that satellite imagery doesn’t capture an exact replica of what our eyes see as “true color” but I would hardly say that the satellite imagery is deceptive in this way. The imagery is from LandSat 7 (mostly) using a bands 3, 2, 1 assigned to colours red, green and blue. These bands are there to create an quasi-‘true color’ image. And sure enhancements are used, but otherwise the thing would appear extremely dark and would be useless (most likely using linear strech to increase contrast).

I believe you can do quite a bit of qualitative analysis on what you do see here without expensive image processing software as long as you know what you’re looking at (though its pretty obvious). In the images Dave posted you can clearly see that fresh cuts appear bright and tan-coloured, where as regenerating cuts have a more green in them. Quantitative analysis is a different story, which is where the experts come in.

Similarly, I don’t see why imagery can’t be used to solicit emotion as well as being used for analysis. How else do you expect society to take notice and work towards enviromentally and somewhat economically viable a solution?

April 13, 01h


I’ve created a Google Maps Satellite directory:

Feel free to add other maps as you see fit!

Jason says:
April 13, 08h

Kamloops… good to see you still think of us here, Dave. :)

I too was looking those images the other day and comment to some co-workers regarding the amount of clear cuts.

Being raised in a household solely supported by timber dollars, it’s hard for me. I agree that forest management is a critical issue, but it may be hypocritical of me to say so.

The best point made is the issue of accountability of people in power. The average citizen has every right to be concerned, and now has one more tool to help them prove a point. These images may be a few years old, but they sure paint a not so pleasant picture.

Thanks Dave.

Alan Whitelaw says:
April 25, 12h

just came across this:

Google Sightseeing!


effika says:
May 01, 03h

That’s such a sad group of photos, and it broke my heart when I looked at GoogleMaps.

Thank you for sharing.

Jalenack says:
July 08, 01h

This article is featured in Wired Magazine (July 2005, page 30)….!

“Graphic designer Dave Shea uses satellite maps to look at the logging industry’s opeations in British Columbia…. What’s possible: Sat coverage of Brazil so environauts can document rain forest destruction.”

How exciting!

eduardo says:
October 04, 11h

If you like Google Maps maybe you like, a photo-sharing community :

Jason Birch says:
October 24, 10h

Brian said: “I don’t see why imagery can’t be used to solicit emotion”.

Certainly, this is an honourable intention, as long as you are making a fair representation of reality. It’s too easy to manipulate images to achieve whatever effect you want to present. Mark Monmonier’s “How To Lie With Maps” applies equally to image analysis.

As an example, this Sierra Club map was subject to considerable discussion when it was originally produced:

and the provincial government created a map using the same data that looked considerably greener.

This left me wondering which was correct, or if neither was. If you manipulate data for emotional impact, you can easily lose credibility.


Jason Birch says:
October 24, 10h

Brian said: ‘I don’t see why imagery can’t be used to solicit emotion.’

Certainly, this is an honourable intention, as long as you are making a fair representation of reality. It’s too easy to manipulate images to achieve whatever effect you want to present. Mark Monmonier’s How To Lie With Maps applies equally to image analysis.

If you manipulate data for emotional impact, you can easily lose credibility.