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Google Maps updated satellite images; we figure out when

Google recently released new satellite images of the DC region. Google last updated its images of the area using pictures taken in August of 2010.

Green bike lanes at I St. and South Capitol. All photos from Google Maps.

We figured out that the latest images come from Saturday, October 13, 2012. How do we know that? First, there's quite a bit of evidence to suggest that they were taken on a Saturday. For example, the Fenton Street Market in Silver Spring is in full swing:

You can also see the Flea Market at Eastern Market is open:

DC's vehicle inspection station, which is open on Saturdays but not Sundays, is doing a brisk business.

But the Pentagon and Metro parking lots are sparsely filled.

So it's a Saturday, is there anything to tell us which month these images come from? Nationals Park has the markings that the Nationals are in the Postseason, suggesting the images are from sometime in October.

So now we are fairly confident that it's a Saturday in October, one telltale sign we can use to determine which Saturday it is is by using track work.

Track work equipment
Thankfully, our handy scheduled transit service disruptions calendar tells us where we should expect to find track work each weekend. There's visible equipment on the Green Line between West Hyattsville and Prince George's Plaza. The only time that section of track was worked on during October was the weekend of the 13th.

There are also a lot of people on the South Lawn of the White House, and it just so happens the White House Garden Tour was also on October 13 and 14. Since we have ample evidence it was a Saturday, that leaves October 13.

We can even get a fairly good idea when on October 13 the pictures were taken thanks to the Washington Monument, which acts like a giant sundial. It's almost pointing straight north, signifying solar noon, which happened a little before 1 PM that day.

Here are some of the visible changes that the area has seen in the past couple years:

Lots of work done on the 11th Street Bridge complex

DC's first Costco under construction

The new Coast Guard Headquarters at St. Elizabeths

Kastles Stadium

The future Tysons Corner Silver Line station

The Mosaic District

The Silver Spring Transit Center

Cherrywood Lane Roundabout in Greenbelt

The imagery that Google uses seems to have some issues with overpasses making them look misaligned. For example, these Metro tracks just north of Takoma Park look like they've suffered earthquake damage.

What are some of your favorite sights from the latest update?

Steven Yates grew up in Indiana before moving to DC in 2002 to attend college at American University. He currently lives in Southwest DC.  


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Or you could just look at Google Earth in the lower left corner and see that it says the image was taken October 12, 2012 and save yourself a lot of time.

by Captain Obvious on Jan 7, 2013 10:29 am • linkreport

I noticed the update too, because we're at the tail end of an 18-month-long complete renovation of our new house, and all of a sudden you can see our new roof. Hey, we may be months behind schedule, but at least you can see progress from the sky now!

by Gregory on Jan 7, 2013 10:30 am • linkreport

Captain Obvious: Except it's not actually October 12, it's October 13. Maybe it's from a satellite pass that started October 12 or something, but it's not October 12.

by David Alpert on Jan 7, 2013 10:31 am • linkreport

RE: misaligned overpasses: it would appear that Google took "stereo" images (two images taken from slightly different angles), and then processed them to figure out the heights of various features in the images. This is similar to how your brain interprets two slightly different images from your eyes to figure out how far away objects are. Google then enhanced one of the two images to exaggerate the heights of the features such as buildings. This makes them stand out more in the images. The slight bending added to the train tracks would appear to be an artifact of the process. Interestingly, a whole generation of people who are viewing Google's images might think the height of objects in overhead images really appears stark, when in fact the original images look largely flat.

by Alan on Jan 7, 2013 10:35 am • linkreport

Thanks for picking this up, Steven! I first noticed the new images when I saw that the InterCounty Connector and its trail were completed.

I also found a really big street fair in Old Town Fairfax. It seems like everybody was outside that day!

by dan reed! on Jan 7, 2013 10:56 am • linkreport

When is Google finally going to get 45º oblique views of the city? Bing has had that for forever. I saw the helicopter just a few months ago flying back and forth across the city moving slightly northward with each pass taking new shots of the city, but I haven't seen the updated images on Bing yet. I was hoping it was going to be Google's. Any idea why Google doesn't have that for DC? Or is it available in Earth?

by Steve D on Jan 7, 2013 10:58 am • linkreport

Are the old images stored and available publicly somewhere?

by Falls Church on Jan 7, 2013 11:04 am • linkreport

Google has the birds eye (what Bing calls it) for a few cities (Philly notably) but I don't know if they have it for DC yet.

by drumz on Jan 7, 2013 11:06 am • linkreport

Falls Church: you can use Google Earth to access old images...there's a slider at the top that lets you look at past imagery. Try it out -- you can go pretty far back!

by Sean on Jan 7, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

The completed Anacostia Riverwalk Trail bridge over the rail line around 1900 M St SE is now shown as completed, too. The bridge is a great way to get to the boathouses down here from NE.

by Drew on Jan 7, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

I live in central Annandale -- been in the house for 2 1/2 years -- and Google Satellite still shows the previous owner's car in the driveway...

by SYSM on Jan 7, 2013 11:22 am • linkreport

Is that what that annoying helicopter is, Steve? For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the helicopter was doing. But I'd like to add that it's really annoying, since I use over-the-air TV and helicopters cause it to cut out. One briefly flying over is NBD. The random emergency that requires the police to circle around for a while is understandable. But one hovering intermittently over my neighborhood for what seemed like an entire day, with little discernible purpose, is super-annoying. Satellite, street view, mapping, many different kinds of images do we need?

by Ms. D on Jan 7, 2013 11:30 am • linkreport

The map nerd in me loves this post. Awesome.

by Dave Murphy on Jan 7, 2013 11:32 am • linkreport

You can see so much of the New MoCo construction, if you look closely you can see the construction cranes for the two new residential projects on Fairmout Avenue and Del Ray Avenue in Bethesda, and the second residential tower at White Flint Station, The new government offices off Fisher ln near Twinbrook, plus the ground work for lot 31 at Bethesda/Woodmont Avenues, and Pike and Rose. You can also clearly see site work for Downtown Crown in Gaithersburg, The first 2 phases of Watkins Mill TC on either side of 270, and the new Holy Cross hospital in Germantown.

by Gull on Jan 7, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

Sweet detective work. I noticed this lately when spying on home (takoma park), and noticed the hole in the ground that is the new apartment building going up at Carroll/Maple by the metro is now displayed. It wasn't before.

I was wondering why we couldn't see our car on the street in front of the house - but I realized, we were on vacation, the car was at the airport, on that Saturday, 10/13.

by Steve on Jan 7, 2013 12:05 pm • linkreport

Still waiting on Google's version of the Birds Eye view, but I like how 18th St. in Adams Morgan is updated to reflect the new streetscape project.

by Scoot on Jan 7, 2013 12:39 pm • linkreport

You can also tell that it is October 13th because of all the people at the south lawn of the White House attending a Fall Garden Tour.

by Scoot on Jan 7, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

Nice! But Bethesda has some nasty shadows in the new images.

And the map shows Woodmont Avenue going straight through the construction pit south of Bethesda Avenue.

by Frank IBC on Jan 7, 2013 1:21 pm • linkreport

As far as I can tell the Birds Eye view is in Beta on Google Maps. As drumz noted, it's in a few cities. Baltimore has it.

However, the option is automatic- you need to go to a full zoom to access it. Whether or not it will be integrated as a separate option remains to be seen, but knowing Google, they'll probably roll it out when they accumulate more data.

by Another Andrew on Jan 7, 2013 1:24 pm • linkreport

I just hope they update the streetview around my house before we try and sell it. The old house looked like poo frankly, and I'm sure it would scare off another buyer.

by thump on Jan 7, 2013 1:42 pm • linkreport

RE: misaligned overpasses: It's probably because they don't have the elevation data for the tracks and it's trying to match the elevations of the road. All other parts of the tracks would be defined by the elevation of the land around it, which I'm sure they have. Although it looks as if it's shifting to the left or right, it's actually trying to adjust the picture up or down.

by Ron on Jan 7, 2013 1:46 pm • linkreport

Scoot: That was prominently featured in the article. Not sure how you missed it.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 7, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

I transmitted a tip to some weeks ago about this image update, The date of the picture pass, 10 13 2012, was concluded by me by the fact that the pedestrian bridge over southbound VA-123 Dolley Madison Boulevard at the under construction McLean Metrorail station was set that morning. The bridge over the northbound lanes was set the following morning.

View Larger Map

by Sand Box John on Jan 7, 2013 2:04 pm • linkreport

My building (the Galaxy) is no longer a mud-pit under construction, but Street View has not been by since it was a county parking lot...

by gooch on Jan 7, 2013 2:12 pm • linkreport

Snallygaster is also evident at Yards Park.

by Emcubed on Jan 7, 2013 2:18 pm • linkreport

I'm more interested in seeing when the street view images will be updated. Anyone know how long that normally takes?

by Patrick on Jan 7, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport


There was a IAMA on Reddit with a Google street view driver. The topic came up on the frequency on updating street view. Basically they try and hit everything once, then update based on popularity of the street and destinations on that street. So if you live on quite street with no popular destinations, it might take awhile.

by RJ on Jan 7, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

If you look at Murch Elementary the fall fair is underway. That pegs the date and time within a few hours.

by contrarian on Jan 7, 2013 3:04 pm • linkreport

"Falls Church: you can use Google Earth to access old images...there's a slider at the top that lets you look at past imagery. Try it out -- you can go pretty far back!"

To access the slider, click on a button that looks like a globe with a big green arrow pointing down and left covering it. This is just to the left of the button that looks like a setting sun. This is the "Historical Imagery" button! When clicked, you can look at all the older imagery of the chosen location!

by Jumble on Jan 7, 2013 3:41 pm • linkreport

Nice work. Steven, did you ever consider a career with the NGA?

by Wilsonia on Jan 7, 2013 3:53 pm • linkreport

I see the new construction at Mount Vernon Hospital made it into the satellite view this time. Also the new Beacon at Groveton, and some of the other development along Route 1 in that area.

by Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Jan 7, 2013 4:27 pm • linkreport

As best as I could tell, Ms. D, that's exactly what it was.

It was a helicopter with a big black apparatus attached under the nose, and it spent hours one day back around September 15-16 (I think!) flying perfectly east/west across the district, moving slightly north (or south, can't recall) with each pass. And it would disappear from view going each way for almost exactly the same amount of time, letting me know that it was turning around at almost the same place. It was within my sight line north to south for the better part of an hour. I don't know for sure, but based on what looked like a huge camera(s) on the chopper and the flight pattern, I was just guessing that's exactly what it was. Of course, it could be any number of other oblique/aerial photography resources that exist other than Google/Bing too. Lots of private companies compile that at higher resolutions and sell it.

by Steve D on Jan 7, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

Also, I found this great online (crowdsourced, I think) map of all the places that have 45º imagery. Richmond, Lynchburg, Hagerstown, Baltimore, Norfolk and Virginia Beach have it for pete's sake, but not DC. Could it be the securicrats have something to do with DC's omission as they vet and doctor the images first? Gee what are the chances of that?

by Steve D on Jan 7, 2013 4:39 pm • linkreport

Surprised DC doesnt have 45 degree imagery. Fresno has had it for over two years, in fact, it needs to be updated its getting too old.

The satellite imagery you're looking at isnt necessarily all from the same day, because of clouds. That might explain the october 12/13 thing.

And that roundabout is terribly designed.

by JJJJJ on Jan 7, 2013 5:15 pm • linkreport

@Wilsonia, et al.
Thanks, I should point out I had a lot of help from other contributors. But no I never really considered going into something like this or GIS full time. It's always been more of a hobby.

by Steven Yates on Jan 7, 2013 5:40 pm • linkreport

I think the helicopters might be doing something else:

by Steve S. on Jan 7, 2013 7:37 pm • linkreport

Steve S., perhaps, though those flights are 150 feet off the ground and at 80 miles per hour, per the article. The chopper I saw was much higher than 150 feet, and it was back in September — these flights started in late December.

by Steve D on Jan 7, 2013 11:25 pm • linkreport

Sorry that I threw this into the mix. The "incident" I was referring to was on a weekend a while ago, so I think Steve D is right about its cause. I wouldn't notice extra helicopters during weekday daylight hours this time of year, since I'm normally not home at those times. It wasn't a huge disruption to my life, but I still don't support even more helicopters hovering about. Beyond my selfish desire to watch TV without interruptions every few minutes, they *are* kind of loud at low altitudes. Where necessary (police, life flights, etc.), I don't and wouldn't dare complain, but when optional I'm a fan of peace, quiet, and strong TV signals.

by Ms. D on Jan 8, 2013 12:27 am • linkreport

EYA is putting up its Chancellor's Row rowhouses at rapidfire pace, so you can also track Google satellite image date by the buildings that are up, wrapped, have roofs, etc.

I'm not sure how to insert the image, but the link is here:

by Steve Glazerman on Jan 8, 2013 10:37 am • linkreport

For Google images and maps, you can jack the html straight from their embed feature so you don't have to remember img tags or anything, Steve Glazerman.

by selxic on Jan 8, 2013 6:57 pm • linkreport

Another interesting sight is the construction of the new "City Center DC," where the old convention center used to be. In addition to the buildings, you can also see the reconnected street grid.

Also for aviation fans, there appears to be an airshow at Montgomery county airpark north of Gaithersburg.

by caps fan on Jan 9, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

If you like satellite imagery, you can tell Google the points you are interested in, and then you will get an email whenever new imagery is posted.

by Jeral Poskey on Jan 11, 2013 1:20 am • linkreport

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