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Calling Geo-Researchers: Help Us by Blogging Your Work!

We want to bridge the disconnect between Geo-research and Geotech.

Geographic information systems (GIS) was once a mere concept of quantitative and computational geography. Thanks to Michael Goodchild, research on key topics such as spatial analysis and visualization were formalized.

While serving as an assistant professor, Roger Tomlinson worked as the manager of the computer mapping division at Spartan Air services. His pioneering work to plan and developer the Roger Tomlinson’s pioneering work to initiate, plan, and develop the Canada Geographic Information System resulted in the first computerized GIS in the world in 1963. Both of these legends were working in the university when they changed the future by creating what we today call GIS.

Fast forward to today, What are scientists and researchers doing with location data? What are the biggest research projects in the universities concerning geospatial data and analysis? Once finished with our studies or academic careers, it is easy to be distanced away from the research world. At Geoawesomeness, we would like to do our part to bridge the disconnect between Geo-research and Geotech and help usher in further innovation and collaboration in the industry.

So far…

At Geoawesomeness, we’ve previously helped researchers with their work by sharing information about their research surveys and by blogging about the state of GIScience. Knowing that there are so many research institutions working in the domain of GIScience and that many other topics are becoming inherently location-based, we have barely scratched the surface when it comes to showing our audience what’s going on at the forefront of science! No one knows about the latest happenings in the research world better than you researchers working in the field!

Hence, we have decided that we are actively going to invite more people to write about their work and research with the rest of our community. We’re very curious about what problems you’re trying to solve, what approaches you’re taking, and what you’ve learned so far. Writing about your research will help you reach a wide and enthusiastic audience, with Geoawesomeness reaching over 170 000 page visits each month! It will also help accelerate the adoption of geotech across the world, positively helping impact our communities. We hope that our Georesearch initiative can also expose you to other areas of research and get connected to other researchers and geogeeks.

We are passionate about exploring the intersection of science, technology, and location and usually write about all topics where we see such a connection. While the definition of a geo-topic is open by nature, just to give you a better example,

We’re interested in

  • AR/VR,
  • autonomous driving, computer vision, navigation,
  • big data (geospatial),
  • blockchain, decentralization
  • citizen science
  • drones, remote sensing, photogrammetry
  • location intelligence, location data analytics,
  • machine learning, AI
  • mobility as a service, smart cities, and many more!

If you are working as a researcher either at the university or at a research lab, this is your chance to share your work outside the academic world. Who knows? Perhaps your work is going to change the industry just like how Michael Goodchild and Roger Tomlinson did in the past century. Send me an email or say hello to us via Twitter 🙂

The growing importance of data science and anticipatory action in humanitarianism

In the humanitarian sector, as elsewhere, being able to predict the future is becoming less
science fiction and more science fact. Predictive modelling aimed at forecasting crisis events, so that steps can be taken to reduce or prevent their impacts, is becoming increasingly prevalent. We are witnessing a noticeable shift in emphasis from the logistics of response to anticipatory action.

As part of this shift, a lot of effort is going into data preparedness, aimed at ensuring that when crises occur, those coordinating the responses have immediate access to the baseline
information they need to rapidly understand and analyse the impacts. MapAction, an international humanitarian mapping charity, is active in both areas. We have been working to actively and collaboratively curate and develop humanitarian data sets that we know are
needed for mapping in any disaster or emergency (the subject of a future geoawesomeness
blog), and we are co-operating with partners to develop and validate new predictive approaches.

Even before COVID-19 significantly increased humanitarian need globally in a short timeframe, insight from predictive analytics (PA) was being used to improve humanitarian supply chains and reduce costs, as well as to forecast things like food shortages and movements of displaced people. The World Bank, the World Food Program, the Red Cross, Start Network and Save the Children are among the organisations actively applying PA to solve these types of problems. COVID has precipitated this by making humanitarian work even more difficult and complex while resources are stretched even further, necessitating smarter, more agile approaches.

The shift towards anticipatory action is also being encouraged by The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which aims to facilitate the widespread
use of current and historical data and PA tools to predict emergency scenarios or specific aspects of them – such as their magnitude, duration or likely impacts – in order to trigger appropriate responses ahead of time. As part of this goal, it has established anticipatory action frameworks for a number of high-risk countries incorporating three elements: a predictive model or forecast; pre-arranged financing based on triggers; and a pre-agreed
action plan.

The UN’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in the Hague has a PA team which is working to develop new predictive models in this area, as well as supporting others to develop and use
their own models. For the past year, MapAction has had a data scientist based at the Centre
to collaborate and share learning, bringing our geospatial expertise to the table.

There have already been several fruitful results of this ongoing cooperation. Together with other other partners, notably the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, we developed a model to predict the scale, severity and duration of the coronavirus outbreak within specific countries, including its likely effects on vulnerable groups. This model is being used to support short-term operational decision-making in an effort to protect and save more lives.

We have also contributed to a drought-related anticipatory action framework to predict potential food shortages caused by drought in Somalia and Ethiopia. The MapAction team reviewed past literature, evaluated available satellite images, and created a prototype drought model in Google Earth Engine. The resulting indicators were used to trigger an early release of critically needed funds from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

Another project has involved the implementation and validation of an approach for mapping flooding from satellite imagery. This has been used to help evaluate the impact of recent anticipatory action in Bangladesh. Last July, the European Commission’s Global Flood Awareness System predicted a high probability of severe flooding in Bangladesh, which is vulnerable to flooding from monsoons from June to September. This trigger was enough to release funding to distribute assistance including cash, livestock feed, storage drums, and hygiene, dignity and health kits in the fastest-ever allocation of CERF funds since the Fund’s inception in 2005.

To better understand how this aid was helpful to those affected, the PA team needed to know exactly when, where, and for how long flooding occurred. We analysed a number of satellite images from Bangladesh and then used the outputs to develop a simple model indicating how the flooding occurred over space and time. We validated these estimates of historical flooding against external data sources (such as river discharge measurements) to
be confident in their accuracy. After it had been validated in this way, MapAction was then able to test out parts of this analysis with confidence in the responses to Hurricanes Eta and Iota in Central America in November, when torrential rains falling on saturated ground and steep valleys caused devastating floods and landslides.

We’re continuing work with the PA team on flooding-related anticipatory action by investigating the predictive power of various hydrological forecasts, through comparison against historical flooding data.

As the accuracy of forecasts and predictive modelling continues to improve, some believe that anticipatory action will become more important than disaster response in the future. Humanitarian crises are incredibly complex. Anything that helps to unpick that complexity to better understand and prepare for the interconnected factors affecting their trajectory and the impacts on those caught up in them is to be warmly welcomed.

What Will Disrupt GEOINT in the Coming Years? Experts Weigh In

Now is an exciting time for GEOINT, with the market projected to reach a staggering $134.48 billion by 2025. The adoption of GEOINT technology is increasing rapidly, and we can expect to see significant changes and disruptions to the space within the next few years.

Personally, I think we can bet on capabilities like synthetic aperture radar (SAR), 3D photogrammetric point clouds, and virtual reality (VR) systems disrupting the industry in big ways over the next decade. However, I feel the biggest disruption will come from the increased usage of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) in many traditional GEOINT workflows.

Today, data is being collected in higher volumes than we have analysts available to exploit it. AI and ML will enable us to look across a wider variety of data sources, identify patterns not visible to the human eye, and drastically decrease the time needed to take action. The real challenge will be for the GEOINT community to embrace ML and AI before our adversaries do…

With this in mind, I asked five other experts what they think the biggest disruption to GEOINT will be in the coming years. Here’s what they had to say:

Robert Cardillo
President, The Cardillo Group (former director of the NGA)

“Much of human advancement has been underpinned by the power that emanates from locational understanding and contextual insight. This progress will move into hyperdrive over the next five years as geospatial data and underlying data become commoditized and globally accessible. This will result in a better connected, more transparent, and increasingly informed world. One can then imagine a shared perspective that could lead to a common understanding and a return to civil discourse on top of that unitary foundation. Such an outcome is not a given—there remain real risks to privacy, civil liberties, and the misuse of such connectivity. However, with purposeful coordination, we are on the cusp of a truly interdependent world in which our individual advancement will be dependent on our collective cooperation. Such a world will advance all of humanity.”

Chris Tucker

Chairman, American Geographical Society

“The commodification and convergence of location-enabled, geographically-aware, and web-accessible sensors, things and robots will fundamentally transform our relation with the world around us over the next five years. What have been separate fields of endeavor will merge around a common 4D framework for understanding our continuously evolving planet and society. The acceleration of our society to machine speeds, across every inch of our 4D planet, is both thrilling in its potential for progress and haunting in its ethical dilemmas.”

Keith Masback
Principal Consultant, Plum Run (former CEO, USGIF)

“I believe the biggest disruption to the geospatial intelligence community over the next few years will be the rapid acceleration of the simultaneous adoption of products and services derived from GEOINT data and information across myriad sectors of the economy. Using a geological metaphor, I’d say that GEOINT has been akin to a slow-growing lava dome which has been building towards a rather forceful eruption. The confluence of education, training, experience, competitive forces, and the increasing availability of diverse data—along with significant leaps in various enabling technologies—has GEOINT poised for explosive growth (which will in and of itself create both opportunities and challenges).”

Lynne Schneider

Research Director, IDC

“The biggest disruption is the potential for the GEOINT community to undergo tremendous expansion as a broader group of people realize the value of geospatial intelligence. The path to growth includes greater use of AI and other tools to simplify analysis and expand to more diverse use cases (and users).”

Christy Monaco
Vice President of Programs, USGIF

“While the term “disruption” tends to have a negative connotation, to an innovator, “disruption” equals opportunity. As such, I believe one of the biggest opportunities for the GEOINT community over the next five years is going to be the development of the geospatial technology ecosystem in St. Louis, Missouri. Leading up to occupancy by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) of their Next NGA West facility in St. Louis in 2025, I am watching with great excitement how industry, academia, and government entities in and around St. Louis are seeking new opportunities to partner and work alongside each other. USGIF is playing an active role in advancing these efforts through our St. Louis Area Working Group. After a year when we all had to adjust to new ways of working, and in which the general public’s appreciation for information arrayed in a geospatial context grew tremendously, I think the St. Louis community already has a head start in collaboration and creativity to make the most of this unique convergence. “

GEOINT technology has been, and will continue to, change the world with its diverse and powerful applications. As more data is generated and collected at astonishing speed and volume, technologies like AI and ML will supercharge GEOINT and its value in countless areas. I look forward to what the future has in store.

Another day, another SPAC: Rocket Lab going public to build bigger rocket

As the SPAC frenzy among satellite companies continues, Rocket Lab has become the latest geospatial startup to announce its plans to go public by merging with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Vector Acquisition Corporation.

The deal, which would give Rocket Lab an enterprise value of $4.1 billion, is expected to infuse the California-based space launch specialist with $750 million in cash when it closes in the second quarter of 2021. When that happens, Vector will change its name to Rocket Lab USA and the combined company will trade under the Nasdaq ticker symbol RKLB.

Courtesy: Rocket Lab

“This milestone accelerates Rocket Lab’s ability to unlock the full potential of space through our launch and spacecraft platforms and catalyzes our ambition to create a new multi-billion-dollar business vertical in space applications,” says Peter Beck, CEO and Founder of Rocket Lab.

Propelling this ambition is Neutron — a bigger, more advanced space launch vehicle that Rocket Lab plans to build after launching close to 100 small satellites with Electron. And this development will put Beck in much closer competition with Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Hopefully, the two companies can continue to coexist peacefully, even though Musk has hinted in a recent tweet that Neutron looks a little too familiar to SpaceX rocket Falcon 9:

 

Neutron is designed as a reusable launch vehicle with an 8-ton payload lift capacity. As such, Neutron is apt for anything from mega constellation launches and deep space missions to human spaceflight. The rocket’s debut flight is slated for 2024.

“In the history of spaceflight, Rocket Lab is one of only two private companies that has delivered regular and reliable access to orbit,” Beck points out. “Not only are we the leader in small launch, we are the second most frequently launched rocket in the US annually and the fourth most frequent launcher globally.”

Alex Slusky, CEO of Vector, acknowledges that Rocket Lab is democratizing access to space by delivering end-to-end solutions across the launch and space systems markets. “Peter is a true visionary who has built a world-class company with discipline and grit. Rocket Lab is ideally positioned to continue to capture market share in the rapidly expanding space launch, systems, and applications markets.”

Satellite companies take the SPAC route

With today’s announcement, Rocket Lab has become a part of a growing league of satellite companies that have jumped aboard the SPAC bandwagon to raise funds.

Just last month, satellite imagery specialist BlackSky had announced a SPAC merger deal to raise $450 million in cash. Before that, in December 2020, rocket maker Astra merged with SPAC company Holicity in a deal that valued the rocket company at $2.1 billion. The same month, satellite-to-smartphone broadband company AST also entered into a SPAC deal with New Providence to give the former an equity value of $1.8 billion.

And in October 2020, space transportation specialist Momentus joined forces with Stable Road Capital in a SPAC blank-cheque merger to raise capital to grow a last-mile delivery network in space. Interestingly, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic also went public through a SPAC deal in 2019.

LiveEO conducts revolutionary analysis based on satellite data on a continent-scale

Recently, the Berlin-based space company LiveEO published the results of an amazing study: They analysed the entire U.S. electrical transmission grid based on satellite data to detect vegetation encroachment from space. The results reveal exciting insights about the vegetation condition alongside nearly 574,000 miles of overhead lines.

Besides the sole detection of vegetation, the study aimed to identify regions with a higher-than-average vegetation exposure and lays the baseline for high-resolution analysis of these areas.

Vegetation management is one of the biggest challenges and operational cost factors for utility companies in maintaining their assets, causing up to 56% of externally triggered power interruptions. In the United States alone, approximately US$6 billion is spent on vegetation maintenance by utility companies annually.

LiveEO’s extraordinary analysis is based on publicly available geospatial data from the U.S. transmission network and imagery from the Sentinel-2 mission from the Copernicus program of the European Commission and the European Space Agency. In total, LiveEO evaluated the area around 573,323 miles of power lines based on space-borne data processed on servers in the United States to determine the length of power lines threatened by vegetation. More than 1.7 million square miles (~45% of the total continental U.S. area) of imagery have been processed by LiveEO, equivalent to approximately 15,000 scenes of satellite imagery.

“The scale combined with the detail of the analysis represents a milestone in satellite data analytics for utility companies and proves that satellite data represents a viable alternative for vegetation management to Lidar or foot patrols.” says LiveEO Co-Founder Daniel Seidel. “Additionally, these insights can be made actionable directly via our toolset of mobile and web apps, and API integrations to improve workforce efficiency in the field and to realize OPEX saving.” adds LiveEO Co-Founder Sven Przywarra.

LiveEO found that a total of roughly 50% of the United States transmission network, equalling 291,000 miles, is exposed to vegetation closer than 90 feet. More specifically, they identified 166,000 miles that contained vegetation in a 30 ft. vicinity.

With this study’s help, utility companies get an initial overview of the vegetation condition alongside their assets. In addition to this large scale analysis LiveEO is highly experienced in the extremely accurate and efficient investigation of vegetation height, condition, and species detection alongside electrical transmission and distribution lines, railways and other infrastructure grids:

Height and health of vegetation for example improve the risk assessment of vegetation near overhead power lines enabling an extended cycle trimming that takes into account how tall the trees and shrubs are, whether they are healthy or diseased, and also at what distance they grow from the grid. It also allows hazard trees to be correctly identified and removed, helping in storm and hurricane safety.

Overall LiveEO’s solution allows utilities to improve their UVM (utility vegetation management process) to increase grid reliability, safety and to save up to 35% of operational vegetation management cost.

Another use case for satellite-based vegetation analysis is the identification of fire-prone areas near power lines. In addition to dry conditions and exceptional heat, growing near power lines cause wildfires.

LiveEO is already helping utilities identify fire-prone areas and conduct highly accurate post-wildfire inspections for rapid restoration activities.

With a wide range of utility and infrastructure customers in North America, Europe, and Australia, LiveEO has demonstrated its capabilities in numerous pilot projects and large-scale deployments on an entire countries’ scale.

To strengthen contact with its customers through physical presence, LiveEO opened an office branch on the East Coast of the U.S. in late 2020.

More information about LiveEO’s analysis can be found on their website. LiveEO offers infrastructure customers a free sample analysis of their network.

Key takeaways from report on the potential of Earth Observation in Africa

Screenshot of the report cover
Screenshot of the report cover

A report published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with Digital Earth (DE) Africa explores the potential economic impact of Earth Observation (EO) data in Africa.

Published on January 15th, the report predicts that the impact of DE Africa could surpass $2 billion per year by 2024. It mentions three key areas that will benefit from the information provided by DE Africa: the EO industry, the agricultural sector, and the mining industry.

Here are 3 takeaways from the report.

1. Countries still face challenges of Earth Observation (EO) data availability, quality, and useability preventing them from utilizing its full potential

Satellite in space
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

The lack of actionable data and information on key trends is hampering the progress of new technologies to tackle issues facing Africa.

According to a 2017 report, the adoption of EO globally can contribute to the attainment of 16 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Specifically, using EO within Africa is directly relevant to the attainment of:

  • Zero hunger – SDG 2
  • Clean water and sanitation – SDG 6 
  • Industry, innovation, and infrastructure – SDG 9 
  • Sustainable cities and communities – SDG 11 
  • Climate action – SDG 13
  • Life below water – SDG 14 
  • Life on land – SDG 15 

Consequently, if EO data were easier to access and use across the continent, countries could overcome several challenges in meeting the needs of their growing populations.

2. DE Africa can ease access to EO data 

The Open Data Cube (ODC) is a non-profit, open-source project that provides an innovative and freely accessible solution. It makes it easier to use satellite data to its full potential by:

  • Streamlining data distribution management for providers
  • Lowering technical barriers for users

A simple diagram of what makes up an ODC deployment
A simple diagram of what makes up an ODC deployment (Source)

Digital Earth Africa, formerly Africa Regional Data Cube, has scaled up ODC technology to the entire African continent.

It is translating EO data into information and services and, as a result, increasing its useability.

In fact, it will be the world’s largest open data cube providing insights into various issues including flooding, droughts, soils, coastal erosion, agriculture, forests and land use land change, water availability and quality, and changes to human settlements.

Leveraging from the lessons and achievements of DE Australia, and the Africa Regional Data Cube, DE Africa will certainly shape the growth of all sectors across the continent.

3. Realisation of the full benefits of EO data depends on the development and adoption of geospatial industry best practices

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

The report estimates that DE Africa will speed up the growth of Africa’s EO industry by $500 million a year from 2024. (Estimated from GeoBuiz – Geospatial Industry Outlook & Readiness Index, 2018 and 2019)

The estimate assumes that:

  • DE Africa will raise the quality of African Data Infrastructure (i.e., availability of EO images in the region), by halving the distance between Africa and Australia (where a similar project is in full force) by 2024.
  • DE Africa could stimulate African countries to improve other policy-related indicators. That by 2024 Africa will reproduce the best practices adopted in different areas by the top-performing countries.

Therefore, to unlock the full potential of EO data, countries should adopt the following best practices

  • Have a national geospatial data infrastructure.
  • Have an enabling national geospatial policy framework (inclusive of data dissemination and data access). The framework will support the implementation of National Spatial Data Infrastructure, surveying and mapping policies, open data policies for geospatial data and otherwise, and Space policies.
  • Build and invest in institutions offering distinctive courses for higher education and research. This will develop a highly knowledgeable and talented pool of human resources for overall user adoption, industry and entrepreneurship, and innovation advancement. 
  • Have capabilities to integrate geospatial information with applications/hardware and software of varied ecosystems such as IT and Engineering. This will lead to the creation of unique solutions, generating substantial economic and social value.
  • Have a vibrant geospatial industry ecosystem. Countries should have dedicated geospatial technology business incubation programs as part of national programs. Additionally, they should have well-diversified representative industry bodies, professional member networks, and institutions. Further, they need a diverse spread of products, services, and solutions categories for various geospatial technology domains.

Eventually, even though DE Africa will improve the geospatial data infrastructure on the continent, in order to unlock the full potential of EO, the African ecosystem of industry sectors and government institutions need to develop the remaining best practices.

Read the full report and share your thoughts with us.

Mars and Turkey: Separated by space, united by geology

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If you’re curious about the existence of life on Mars, you only have to look as far as Turkey to find answers. Well, almost.

Lake Salda in 2020 (left) and Jezero Crater in 2017 (right). Courtesy: NASA

Lake Salda, a stunning turquoise basin in Turkey’s Burdur province is believed to have similar mineralogy and geology to that of a Mars crater. Now, this is the same crater where NASA’s Perseverance rover landed successfully on Feb 18, 2021, in pursuit of evidence of organic life. The 45-km-wide crater goes by the name Jazero and is located in Mars’ northern hemisphere.

Owing to Salda’s striking similarities with Jazero’s terrain, Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist from US-based Purdue University, and research teams from Istanbul Technical University visited the lake in 2019 to study its geology as well as the surrounding area.

Northeastern shore of Lake Salda. Courtesy: Bradley Garczynski

What we know so far is that Salda’s shimmering white shoreline is made up of hydromagnesite – a mineral similar to the watershed minerals and carbonate detected at the crater’s western borders by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Further, the shoreline’s hydromagnesite sediments have found to be eroded from ‘microbialites’ – aka rocks formed with the support of microbes. And the evidence of these rocks on the crater could point to signs that microbes – and hence life – were once present on Mars!

The Jazero crater also houses a delta, which implies that it might have contained a lake in the past. So, now, scientists want to see if they can learn more about the depositional processes at Jezero by studying the stone settlement patterns in Lake Salda’s alluvial fans.

Groundwater spring on the southwest peninsula of Lake Salda. Courtesy: Bradley Garczynski

Moreover, the mud deposits at the northwestern shoreline of Salda suggest the presence of a nearby groundwater seep. The role groundwater might have played at Jezero is ambiguous, but studying comparable environments like Salda’s will give researchers a better idea of how to look for potential biosignatures at the crater. Apart from studying the lake’s geological anatomy, microbiologists are also observing a range of species inhabiting Lakes Salda, Yarisilu, and Acigol.

“The structures themselves are good indicators that microbial activity was involved,” says Horgan. “The best case scenario is to find something like the microbialites we see in Lake Salda also preserved in the rock in Jezero Crater.”

Though a lot of work at Lake Salda is already helping scientists to determine which deposits are most promising to go visit on Mars, it will be a while before the exploration community would be able to scour any samples from the Red Planet for details about its climate, geology, or even signs of life.

Perseverance is expected spend the next few years on Mars collecting dozens of rock and soil samples. And the mission to retrieve these samples will require at least two more rocket launches from Earth, currently slated for 2026 and 2031. We’ll keep you updated!

First ever global map of bee species blooms conservation hopes

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After analyzing almost 6 million public bee occurrence records, researchers are now ready to tell us where all the bees are! For the first time ever, a global map of bee diversity has been created to help in the conservation of these invertebrates as ecologically and economically invaluable universal pollinators.

We already know there are more than 20,000 bee species spread across the world. And as is the case with most plants and animals, it has always been expected that bees also follow a pattern called latitudinal gradient – wherein species tend to concentrate more toward the tropics and less toward the poles.

Turns out, bees are not a fan of general conventions. “The United States has by far the most species of bees, but there are also vast areas of the African continent and the Middle East which have high levels of undiscovered diversity, more than in tropical areas,” says John Ascher, senior author of the bee study published in Current Biology. Take a look at the map below:

Courtesy: Current Biology

The reason why there are far fewer bee species in forests and jungles than in arid desert environments is because trees tend to provide fewer sources of food for bees than low-lying plants and flowers. On the other hand, rains in the desert often lead to unpredictable mass blooms that literally carpet the entire area, providing bees with abundant food and nesting choices.

Building and sharing the knowledge of insect distribution is one of the biggest, most important challenges that biologists and conservationists face today. And Ascher, who is an assistant professor of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, believes that the abundance of bee species cannot be interpreted in a large-scale analysis of distribution and potential declines of bee populations “until we understand species richness and geographic patterns.”

This is what makes this study particularly important.

“Many crops, especially in developing countries, rely on native bee species, not honey bees,” explains Alice Hughes, an associate professor of conservation biology and one of the authors of the study. “There isn’t nearly enough data out there about them, and providing a sensible baseline and analyzing it in a sensible way is essential if we’re going to maintain both biodiversity and also the services these species provide in the future.”

BlackSky becomes latest satellite company to get a lift from SPAC frenzy

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The BlackSky platform

Satellite imagery specialist BlackSky will soon become a publicly-traded company through a SPAC merger deal with Osprey Technology Acquisition Corp. The geospatial company expects to raise $450 million in cash proceeds through the deal, including $180 million from already-committed PIPE (private investment in public equity) investors.

When the transaction closes in July 2021, the equity value of the merger is expected to be nearly $1.5 billion. The newly combined company will then be listed on the NYSE with the ticker symbol ‘BKSY’.

What is a SPAC deal? How does a SPAC work?

SPAC refers to a ‘special purpose acquisition company’. Basically, a SPAC is like a shell entity – without any commercial operations of its own – which has been established specially for the purpose of making an acquisition or a buyout.

With an expert management team at its helm, the primary goal of a SPAC is to raise capital via an IPO for the purpose of taking over an existing company (in this case, BlackSky). Subsequently, the operating company can be merged with or be acquired by the publicly traded SPAC and become a listed company without going through the traditional route of launching its own IPO.

BlackSky and the new space economy

The roots of the geospatial intelligence company can be traced back to 2014 Seattle where it used to be a subsidiary of Spaceflight Industries. The venture became independent last year after the acquisition of Spaceflight by Japan-based Mitsui & Co.

BlackSky’s current technology stack includes:

  • A constellation of 5 high-resolution small satellites that monitor global events,
  • An artificial intelligence and machine learning enabled software platform that tasks the constellation and translates data into actionable insights,
  • A proprietary database that continually captures information on global changes, and
  • An application layer that delivers on-demand solutions directly to BlackSky customers

Courtesy: BlackSky

BlackSky’s growth plans include the addition of nine new satellites to its constellation in 2021. Eventually, BlackSky aims to grow its constellation to 30 satellites for dawn-to-dusk monitoring at a 30-minute revisit cycle.

Brian O’Toole, CEO of BlackSky, says, “This transaction fully funds our growth plans and accelerates our vision of providing our customers with a ‘first-to-know’ advantage. This is an important inflection point for our industry as commercial and government users demand access to real-time information about the changes that matter most to them.”

David DiDomenico, CEO of Osprey, adds, “The new space economy is taking off, and we believe that BlackSky’s low-cost image capture and on-demand delivery of analytics will revolutionize the way companies and governments detect and track change. BlackSky’s continuously growing, proprietary database is a valuable competitive advantage, and we believe its vertically integrated operations serve as a major point of distinction among other space analytics companies.”

The SPAC frenzy among satellite companies

BlackSky is not the first space company to jump aboard the SPAC bandwagon. In December 2020, rocket maker Astra merged with SPAC company Holicity in a deal that valued the rocket company at $2.1 billion. The same month, satellite-to-smartphone broadband company AST also entered into a SPAC deal with New Providence to give the former an equity value of $1.8 billion.

And before that, in October 2020, space transportation specialist Momentus joined forces with Stable Road Capital in a SPAC blank-cheque merger to raise capital to grow a last-mile delivery network in space. Interestingly, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic also went public through a SPAC deal in 2019.

New nighttime light data, new insights on how the Earth is changing

Satellite View of Manhattan, New York City, United States
Manhattan, New York City, United States. Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Much research has suggested that night-time lights can, to a certain degree, represent several variables, including urbanisation, density, and economic growth. 

To speed up research efforts and applications, the World Bank released open access, analysis-ready, nightlight data set under Amazon Web Services (AWS) open public data set program.

The Light Every Night (LEN) data set includes the complete archive of all nighttime imagery captured each night over the last three decades. It results from a collaboration between the World Bank, NOAA, and the University of Michigan. 

The dataset comprises:

  • Defense Meteorological Satellite Program Operational Line-Scan System (DMSP-OLS) data from 1992 to 2017
  • Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite Day/Night Band (VIIRS-DNB) data from 2012 to 2020

Analysis ready data, new possibilities 

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

Previously, getting data from a specific night or set of nights meant:

  1. Downloading the images from NOAA archives to a local disk
  2. Manipulating the images with either GIS/Remote Sensing software or image viewing software like Photoshop or Gimp

Unfortunately, because the dataset volume is large, their useability is reduced.

The LEN dataset and tools eliminate this challenge.

Availability on AWS makes the global nighttime images widely accessible. Further, data processing can be done in-place on the cloud, enabling analysis of vast amounts of data leading to new insights and applications. 

In fact, the data has already been useful to various World Bank studies, including monitoring the impact of the pandemic on various human activities. 

Apart from the LEN dataset, the World Bank has also provided tutorials on nighttime light data processing, analysis, and applications.

Are you using nighttime lights data? Tell us about it below.

Geospatial Data Unchained – India’s new policy guidelines on data collection, access and services.

On 15th February 2021, The Department of Science and Technology (DST) announced India’s geospatial mapping guidelines for Indian geospatial technology sector. Let me take a step back and try to attempt to outline how these new policy guidelines are envisioned to help and whom.

Survey of India (SOI), under the Department of Science & Technology (DST) is having special responsibility to survey and mapping of India to help integrated development. The same department has carried the legacy data access protocols over several decades which made the process of obtaining maps and geospatial data so much complicated. Often SOI itself has to sought permissions from various Government authorities to discharge their duties as the nature of the data is sensitive and confidential in nature by then.

Meanwhile, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) under the Department of Space (DOS) has proven its mettle in satellite launching for the benefit of several sectors and collected the wide range of remote sensing data with impressive resolution standards.

However, the same set of hardships are repeated to access the geospatial data from ISRO/NRSA/SAC. In case any private sector or research institute are in need of geospatial data for respective purposes, there are no standard guidelines or process in place to grant access and one should walk pillar to post to complete the required paper work for the same.

On other hand, same is the difficulty in conducting surveying and data collection using drones and LiDAR technologies over a known area which needed unknown set of permissions to be taken where there are no clear guidelines to help the needy. It not only pushed private sector’s commercial projects on the shelves but also affected the academic researches due to lack of access to proper data.

Over a period of time during the digital revolution, many cutting edge technologies have helped various sectors and seen many advancements towards BigData, Machine Learning, IoT and Digital Twin and eventually DATA become a new OIL.

There were few major setbacks Indian geospatial industry had faced and are not limited to,

  1. Lack of access to reliable and context specific geospatial data
  2. Lack of overall policy and guidelines for ease of access
  3. Lack of clear understanding of data sharing and storage policies
  4. Lack of access to Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) network

Often perceived that geospatial industry moved in the back seat holding its feet tied up with complex geospatial policy guidelines. But, now that it is inevitable to realise the importance of geospatial data and also the data that India has, is already available globally and hence there is no holding the data in the name of confidential and privacy.

As part of the reforms, DST held a press release chaired by Union Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, MoS, Dr Jitendra Singh, Ashutosh Sharma outlining the major objectives and guidelines on data acquisition, services and data sharing. Below are the major takeaways from the press release to liberalise and deregulating the way geospatial data has been made available and exchanged.

  1. The Survey of India (SoI) and ISRO who are surveying, collecting and maintaining Geospatial Data are directed to make the access procedure simplified and transparent to Indian citizens avoiding prior permissions and data licenses by using cloud technologies and open data APIs in various formats. Essentially moving away from complex approval process to self-certification and self-identification process.
  2. Any private, public and research institutes are entitled to data collection, processing, storing, publishing and sharing the geospatial data within India and using the same in India projects.
  3. Access to CORS network for real time positioning and their data shall be made available without any restrictions.
  4. Mobile Mapping, Street View survey and LiDAR sensors survey shall be permitted to any Indian private, public or research institutes irrespective of accuracy.
  5. Spatial accuracy of 1m for horizontal and 3m for vertical resolution spatial data is accessible without prior approvals for any known area.
  6. Any public digital or paper maps can have all kinds of geospatial features on the map however, labels and symbology are restricted over secured areas.

Location information has become an integral part of most of the businesses either the existing old business who adopted Geospatial technologies off late or the new startups which are unlocking economic, social and environmental opportunities for sustainable growth and development of the country. Apart from startups, traditional geospatial sectors such as Telecom, Defence, Mining, Oil, Transportation, Gas and Utility markets are expected to be benefited tremendously. This reform will surely put Indian Geospatial projects on world market and helps encouraging startup eco-system as well.

Fingers crossed on how effectively these guidelines on paper takes shape and make it reality to unchain the geospatial data for the needy in geospatial sector. Comments and discussions are appreciated as to exchange different perspectives on this reforms.

Source: Press Release, Media Briefing