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Now on Google Street View: poverty

By John D. Sutter, CNN
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, has the highest income inequality in the nation
  • The parish seat, Lake Providence, has a lake that divides rich from poor
  • CNN's John Sutter says Google Street View previously did not show the poor side
  • He writes that that's since changed; he applauds Google, whatever the reason

Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. E-mail him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America," meaning it has a higher rate of income inequality than any other parish or county. And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was missing a key Google Maps feature.

I visited the place last year for a CNN Change the List story, and it was immediately obvious the barrier between rich and poor is both economic and geographic. There's an oxbow lake -- Lake Providence -- that divides a largely rich white neighborhood from a primarily poorer black one. I was surprised to find there's not all that much interaction between each side of the lake, which I found reflective of a national "empathy gap."

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

After the story published, a reader flagged for me the fact that, at the time, you couldn't search the poor side of Lake Providence using Google Street View.

The poor side of town was invisible in that way.

The south side of Lake Providence, Louisiana, did not have Google Street View functionality in November 2013. Roads with Street View are highlighted in blue.
The south side of Lake Providence, Louisiana, did not have Google Street View functionality in November 2013. Roads with Street View are highlighted in blue.

I noticed last week that that's now changed, praise be to Google! I'm not sure why, since the company's press office hasn't answered my questions about it. But I'm pleased, no matter what the reason. I think one issue with poverty in America is that it's too often unseen, regardless of what columnist Paul Krugman thinks.

That Google left the poor side of Lake Providence without Street View probably wasn't intentional, but it was highly symbolic. I'm glad that neighborhood is now included -- not so people can gawk at it but so it's on even technological footing with the richer side. And so it exists.

Here's how Google explained the omission in November: "We try to cover as many streets as possible but occasionally we miss the odd one or two -- for example there may have been road work that day, a street may have been inaccessible or simply because of human error our drivers may have missed a street," a spokeswoman said in an email to me. "It's also possible that we did drive a certain street, but discovered that when processing the imagery, the photographs collected did not meet our high quality imagery standards due to unforeseeable challenges like shadows, poor visibility conditions, etc. Hopefully we can come back and photograph it at a future date."

"It wasn't for any reason about the demographics or anything like that -- or it being a poor area," spokeswoman Susan Cadrecha added at the time. "That does not factor into our decisions in any way to map areas. We're constantly updating this imagery and we're constantly trying to make it as accurate as possible. ... We want the whole world to be mapped, that's our eventual goal. We want people to be able to explore different areas."

In other Lake Providence news, volunteers this year finished painting a hopeful mural near the center of town. It shows an image of Dede Willis, a college student who was featured at the start of the video I produced with CNN's Edythe McNamee. Pretty amazing. I hope to learn more about progress in Lake Providence in coming months. And the Census Bureau tells me it is scheduled to release new data on income inequality by county in December, which may offer new insight.

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