The Billion Dollar Dataset Next Door

Special thanks to Jennings Anderson who looked over an early draft of this post and helped me refine it. Also, as usual, the views expressed herein do not represent those of my parents, my wife, my dentist, or my employer.

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Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

The first time I spoke with Jennings Anderson, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I mean that genuinely — I did not believe him. He was a little incredulous about it himself. I felt like he was sharing an important secret with me that the world didn’t yet know.

If I write it here, I probably wrote it first on Twitter. …


Build something else. Anything else.

Disclaimer: This is purely my personal opinion and does not reflect the stance of my employer, Azavea. It’s not very “Azavean” to write negatively about a topic — but I think this is worth saying publicly since I can’t seem to shut up about it privately!

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“Looks good on a whiteboard.” Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

A Word of Warning

Anything worth doing will be publicly criticized. In the words of Taylor Swift, the poetic conscience of my generation,“Haters gonna hate.”

Today, I’m the hater.

That said, I deeply admire the entrepreneurs starting satellite imagery platforms and marketplaces. …


On the Climate Emergency and the Role of Geospatial Technology

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Photo by Lucy Chian on Unsplash

I believe we are on the cusp of a second golden age of geography. During the first wave, we were on offense. Cartographers during the Renaissance held the keys to unlocking unprecedented understanding about the scope and nature of the world.

But the “second coming of geospatial” that we’re about to live through is all about defense. Climate change is a clear and present threat to humanity’s cumulative wellbeing. The race is underway.

Time is Against Us

There is a dire need to take immediate action to reduce atmospheric carbon (even assuming we manage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally through cleaner energy sources).¹ …


The text below is adapted from an email I sent to an up-and-coming satellite imagery provider. Some details have been omitted or adapted in order to preserve their anonymity. I hope the advice is generally useful to others in their position.

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Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

TL;DR

  1. Release a small percentage of your data under a truly open license, preferably CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) …


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Photo by Galen Crout on Unsplash

I recently wrote about the commercial satellite imagery industry and how fundamentally backwards it is. In that piece, I was mainly addressing companies serving up data derived from the narrow swath of electromagnetic spectrum we humans are most comfortable with — visible light (and its nearest neighbor, infrared light). As it turns out, there’s a whole world of spacefaring companies capturing data about the earth in the oft-overlooked expanses of the electromagnetic spectrum that we humans can’t naturally perceive.

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Remember physics class? Me either. Visible light is just a teeny, tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The emerging subset of the industry that I am most excited by is the cluster of companies focused on synthetic aperture radar (SAR), a very complicated-sounding name for an equally complicated technology. …


All (Mapped) Roads Lead to In-Q-Tel

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Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash

Disclaimer: this is all personal opinion. I don’t represent the views of my employer, Azavea. I disclosed publicly, and regularly, that I have also worked directly with CosmiQ Works, a research lab under the In-Q-Tel umbrella, but that is the extent of my personal experience with the organization.

It’s hard to imagine today, but in 2002, technology startups were decidedly not cool. That year, the NASDAQ-100 index had bottomed-out at 78% below its March, 2000 peak. The infamous “dot-com bubble” had burst, and the venture capital industry was soaked. At that time, no self-respecting investor would have been caught dead speculating on internet startups; hadn’t public markets just illustrated their worthlessness? …


Disclaimer: I work at Azavea, and while I’m writing about topics relevant to my day job, I’m purely speaking as an individual without my employer’s input or permission.

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Photo by Josh Spires (dronenr) on Unsplash

Have you ever tried to purchase a satellite image?

It’s closer to a hostage negotiation than a sales transaction. There will be email introductions, phone calls, lists of demands, let-me-get-back-to-you-on-that-s, appeals to lawyers, requests for paperwork, and ultimately…a ransom. Often, the captive is never released.

Over the past two decades, commercially available satellite imagery has evolved from an absurd aspiration to a mature industry. Millions of people now carry an instantly accessible, global, cloud-free, high-resolution mosaic of satellite images in their pocket. That kind of access to exquisite satellite imagery was exclusively reserved for government intelligence officers until recently — Google Earth wasn’t even launched until 2005, for goodness’ sake!¹ …


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The Vicariously.io home page

Something unusual happened this afternoon on Twitter — out of the blue, I got three notifications that I had been added to a “list.” Normally I would ignore that kind of a notification; I can’t control who adds me to lists and most of the time they appear to be bots or dragnets for certain hashtags. But getting three in a row has definitely never happened…So this time, I looked to see what was up:

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Notifications from people who created lists using Vicariously.io

The top notification is pretty typical and appears to be some variety of spam. But the other two got my attention — why was I added to a list called @_VincentS_ and another called @BrentBeshore? These are accounts that I follow and that follow me back…both rather conspicuously advertised a service used to create them, so I decided to check it out. …


Disclaimer: the views I express in my personal blog are just that: personal. They aren’t endorsed by my employer, my mother, my lawyer, or anyone else for that matter.

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Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

The big news in the geospatial world at the moment is Facebook’s acquisition of Mapillary. For those unfamiliar, Mapillary is a darling of the mapping world and one of the highest-profile geospatial startups of the last decade—launched in 2013, their mission was to create a global street-level imagery dataset to rival Google Street View.

Mapillary was the prototypical “venture-scale” business — preposterously ambitious, technically impressive, inarguably valuable for the world, and plausibly monetizable. What Mapillary accomplished in a short seven years is simply staggering. Google, with an enormous head start and untold resources at the ready to support Street View announced last year that they’ve collected over ten million miles of street imagery. Mapillary, on the other hand, crossed three million miles of mapped streets in 2018 and has more than doubled the number of images in their catalog in the years since (to over one billion!), putting them squarely in the same conversation as Google. That’s an insane accomplishment for any company, let alone a startup who, over its lifetime, raised ~$25M or about half of the annual compensation package for a typical member of Google’s C-Suite. …


And all I have to show for it is this crummy blog post

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Because all blog posts need an image these days, source: https://unsplash.com/photos/fzOITuS1DIQ

Unbeknownst to me at the time, spring of last year was the twilight of my youth. During the intervening year, I have aged three thousand lifetimes. I am Gandalf the White without the wisdom. I am Baby Yoda, but hideous.

What happened? I’ll tell you: a cunning and malignant force hath turnt me into a desperate junky. “It’s just a way to relax,” I reassure my wife each night, my crazed eyes darting to and fro above the blazing-white glare of my phone’s screen. “Oh,” she sighs, “right.”

No, I did not become addicted to sniffing glue (although I am open to experimentation someday). Nor am I one of those… Candy Crush people. Nay! Worse. I became addicted to chess. And because I know full-well that chess has added nothing of value to my life, I am writing this blog post in a vain attempt to rationalize the hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing over the past year as if they weren’t a total waste of time. …

About

Joe Morrison

Comedic relief at @azavea. Writing about maps and the people that make them. For inquiries: jrmorrison.jrm@gmail.com

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