Google historical satellite imagery disappears for India

It is unclear whether this disappearance of data is linked to policy norms or government of India diktat

May 10, 2023 02:10 pm | Updated May 13, 2023 07:54 pm IST - HYDERABAD

Still from Google Earth.

Still from Google Earth.

Satellite historical imagery of India over the past two decades has disappeared from Google Earth. This has been noted by many scholars and researchers who rely on the service for tracking changes in topography, forest cover, urbanisation and history.

Satellite imagery from 2020 is only available for locations in India. The difference is stark when satellite historical imagery of Amritsar has been scrubbed clean, while Lahore, Pakistan — which is about 50 km away — has historical imagery available over the past few decades.

“We are reprocessing some of our historical imagery in the Historic Image database of Google Earth Pro 7, and plan to make imagery available again later this year,” said a spokesperson of Google when this reporter reached out. However, questions whether this disappearance of data is linked to policy norms or government of India diktat were unanswered.

“It looks like it just India — the historical imagery is still there in Pakistan. I was planning to work on my research this summer, and comparing imagery year to year helps me see details that you’d never see walking around at a specific point in time. The imagery from specific years — pre-2020 is sometimes much better than what is available now,” said Robert Simpkins, an anthropology professor at Porterville College who has done extensive research on Hyderabad’s history.

Historical satellite imagery has become an important resource as it helps track changes in the landscape. The disappearance of lakes, encroachments on water bodies and even civic projects like the Secretariat in Hyderabad or the changes in New Delhi due to new Parliament building can be seen in sharp relief in the historical data.

“There used to be high-res images available from all the way back to year 2000 in my area. Now, they’re all gone. If they are trying to ‘remaster’ them for better clarity, then it’s fine. But if they’ve removed it completely due to some government order or due to some old images showing something that the government doesn’t want us to see then that just not fair,” said another user of the free online mapping service.

The Union Cabinet approved a ‘National Geospatial Policy-2022’, noting: “Geospatial data is now widely accepted as a critical national infrastructure and information resource with proven societal, economic and environmental value that enables government systems and services, and sustainable national development initiatives, to be integrated using ‘location’ as a common and underpinning reference frame.”

Among the policy goals include the creation of an enabling ecosystem for ‘Indian Companies that will enable them to make India self-reliant in producing and using their own Geospatial data /information as also compete with foreign companies in the global space’.

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