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These Maps Are Nice to Look at, but Not Smart

Times Staff Writer

I can see your house from here.

Actually, I can see just about everyone’s house from where I’m sitting: in front of my computer, looking at the online satellite/aerial photography services Google Earth and Windows Live Local.

Just type an address into the search boxes of these free services and you get overhead views that are stunningly clear, especially in metropolitan areas where the photos were taken from airplanes.

You can identify cars, read large signs and examine architectural details. As I write this, I can see the exact window in the Times building that is closest to where I’m sitting.

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It’s a bit unsettling, even though the view is not real-time. The photos of Los Angeles in both programs were taken, generally, in the last three years.

Dragging the image a few blocks from The Times -- one of the most amazing attributes of these programs is that the aerial images have been seamlessly woven together -- I can see the unmistakable Walt Disney Concert Hall that opened in October 2003.

The two services, which obtain images from a variety of companies, show the building at different stages of construction.

The best clue I spotted as to the timing of the photos was at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Both programs -- in this case, they seemed to have bought their images from the same company -- showed a view in which “USC” and “MICHIGAN” could be seen in large letters on opposing end zones.

The USC Trojans met the University of Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl football game Jan. 1, 2004. The photo was probably taken in the days before the game because the stands appear empty and the field is pristine.

Privacy issues become more vital when you get close to home.

A friend in Los Angeles was checking out his neighborhood on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Live Local -- which offers particularly detailed “bird’s eye” views of some parts of the country, such as ours -- when he noticed a bright blue square in his neighbor’s backyard. That seemed odd, he told me, because he didn’t think his neighbor had a pool. My friend got up from his computer and peered over the back fence. Indeed, his neighbor had put in a small spa.

Overhead views of my yards are mostly obscured by trees. “You have natural privacy,” said Steven Lawler, general manager of Windows Live Local. Lucky me -- except that those trees hamper attempts to grow plants that need a lot of sun.

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But what about those people with more unadulterated views from above?

“It is understandable that when some people first see the aerial or bird’s-eye view in Windows Live Local, they may get the wrong idea that we can zoom in to recognize them, read their car’s license plate and otherwise obtain personal information from the images,” a statement by Microsoft said.

Backyard pools don’t seem to come under Microsoft’s definition of “personal information.”

The statement continued to say that “the image resolution provides more privacy than does the average flight proximity of a helicopter.” Sure, like most of us have access to photos shot from helicopters.

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Microsoft also noted that it pixelated beyond recognition some sensitive national buildings, such as the White House and U.S. Capitol.

Security and privacy concerns aside, Windows Live Local offers by far the better views in many metropolitan areas because of those bird’s-eye pictures that were taken at an angle from low-flying aircraft. They allow you to see sides of buildings in addition to the overhead perspective.

(Pictometry International Corp., the company that takes the angled shots, also sells them to emergency and security services.)

Lawler said that these views covered areas where about 20% of the U.S. population resided and that it would be up to about 90% in two years.

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But if the Web-based Windows Live Local (it can be found at local.live.com) gives better eye candy, the Google program is easier to use and has been combined cleverly with the company’s premier product, its search engine.

I maneuvered the beautiful globe graphic that begins the program (downloadable at earth.google.com) over the Western U.S. and zoomed in on California. Then I entered my name in the search box. The program quickly determined that I could be found at the Times building.

Talk about unsettling. But it had simply computed that most mentions of my name in its search engine were in connection with articles for the paper. Clicking on The Times took me quickly to a view of the building.

On the more practical side, Google Earth has a number of icons that can be triggered in a neighborhood view to show schools, restaurants, hotels, banks, coffee shops, malls and more.

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“It’s especially good for people who are thinking of buying a home in a neighborhood, or people who are going on vacation,” said John Hanke, product director for Google.

Those icon identifiers are only as good as Web mentions. The program showed a restaurant only a few blocks from my house on what I was sure was a residential street. I walked up there and it was indeed simply a house.

It turns out that the same street address in Richmond, Ind., is the real locale of the cafe. Somehow it got mislocated in a Web listing.

Windows Live Local can also do a search of local establishments in a neighborhood, based on commercial telephone listings, but it’s not as user-friendly.

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Overall, practical applications are not these programs’ strong point. Searches for people and establishments can be more easily accomplished on text search engines.

And although it’s nice to see what it looks like where you’re going, the driving directions you get from mapping programs are more useful.

Google Earth and Windows Live Local appeal more to the voyeur in all of us.

I’m going to be checking out my neighbors for swimming pools. Summer is coming.

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David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.


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