Covid-19 has put the brakes on many things. However, worldwide data growth is not one of them. IDC, the leading market intelligence firm, predicts that data created, recorded, copied and consumed globally will grow from 45 zettabytes in 2019 to more than 59 Zbytes in 2020. And by 2025, the global datasphere figure is expected to rise to 175 Zbytes. This corresponds to an average annual increase of just over 27 per cent. “The volume of data generated in the next three years will be greater than that of the last 30 years,” forecasts Erik Schmalen, Senior Conference Manager of IDC Central Europe, in an interview with speicherguide.de. Not only is the volume of general and personal data, in particular location data, growing, the number of sources is also increasing: from smartphones to sites like Google, Facebook and Amazon, from bank cards to household appliances to GPS tracking devices in cars - they all store, collect and link data. There are also more and more satellites and drones that generate location data in public space as well as from outer space.
„Drowning in data, thirsting for knowledge“
However, an increase in datasphere volume does not automatically result in an increase in knowledge. After all, it's not enough just to have the data. Valuable information can only be obtained through processing, linking and analysis. “But as big data guru Bernard Marr says 'less than 0.5 per cent of all data is analysed, and the number is decreasing,'” writes Orbica founder and CEO Kurt Janssen on the start-up's website. “It is not growing - it's shrinking!” Despite the large volume of data, there is comparatively little knowledge. "I am a geographer by profession and after working for a few years in New Zealand and the USA, I was convinced that there were a lot more geospatial data possibilities that we could explore," explains the expert, who was named Young Professional of the Year at the 2016 New Zealand Spatial Excellence Awards (NZSEA). “For me it was never about the technology or the devices. It's about the data and how we can get the best possible value from it.” Spotting a gap in the market that traditional companies had failed to exploit, the Kiwi founded Orbica (from the Latin Orb - globe, star; orbit - Earth orbit).
Orbica CEO Kurt Janssen © Orbica Ltd.
Democracy for the 21st century
In addition to standard field data acquisition, geospatial data analysis and development, Janssen and his team, which has grown to 26 "orbicans" in less than four years, have made a name for themselves with data visualisation solutions. “In order to determine whether data has value, you first have to understand it," says the founder, "and in order to understand it, you have to visualise it in such a way that people can relate to it." If, for example, taxpayers in the Canterbury region of New Zealand's South Island want to know which environmental protection projects the current regional administration is funding with their money, they can dig through complex tables or 300-page PDF files. Or they can simply click on a website developed by Orbica, where they can interactively follow the progress of the projects at a glance via coloured bubbles. OrbViz, the company's dynamic software-as-a-service tool, can also help other organisations and companies present complicated data such as the spread of Covid-19, greenhouse gas emissions and budget allocations in an easy to understand format. “It's about transparency, understanding and making better, more informed decisions,” explains Janssen. "Our SaaS product OrbViz is democracy for the 21st century."
Location data with Geo AI
Orbica is on the cutting edge of Geo AI. Janssen and his employees quickly realised that it was impossible to analyse the billions of location data and recordings from satellites, drones and aerial photos with the current, manual methods. Let alone gain valuable information from them in real time. The process had to be optimised. The fundamental question was: “How can we shorten it from days, weeks and months to seconds, minutes and hours?” Ten months later, the team had developed an algorithm that can detect buildings, streets, trees and water bodies in just a few minutes at the push of a button - with over 90 per cent accuracy. With the help of deep learning, the algorithm distilled the relevant information from large volumes of data. The neural network stores the different variants of the subjects in a knowledge database. As soon as the data has been processed by the algorithm, it is refined in a geographic information system and fed back to the AI, which improves its accuracy with each data set. “Buildings, trees, streets and water bodies are just the beginning: Our algorithms can be trained to detect and classify any feature on the Earth's surface. The possibilities are endless," proclaims Orbica's website. This innovation earned the company top awards in the Technical Excellence and Export and Innovation categories at NZSEA 2018 and led to Orbica being named one of the Fast 50 Rising Stars (One to Watch) by Deloitte.
From New Zealand to Berlin for Thyssenkrupp
There are also endless possibilities in which Geo AI can be used to save time and money. This includes monitoring land use, environmental protection, disaster management and controlling the chain of resources. It can also be used to automate measurement of construction progress on industrial plants. In spring 2018, it was the latter application that convinced the DAX-listed company Thyssenkrupp to join forces with Orbica. In a seven-minute pitch at Beyond Conventions, an innovation platform for which Kurt Janssen had flown in from the other end of the world, the founder and his partner were able to outdo over 200 competitors. Instead of having to visit and inspect construction sites manually as in the past, Orbica now offers a more efficient solution: "We fly a drone over the construction site and use it to take pictures. We combine these with our 3D modelling techniques and artificial intelligence and can thus document the progress of the building construction very accurately," explains Peter Rose of Orbica.
NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Orbica Managing Director Peter Rose © Orbica Ltd.
„Berlin is perfect for Europe“
The first pilot project was launched just a few weeks later, which saw not only the start of collaboration between Orbica and ThyssenKrupp. “We had our first customer and had to found a German company within a week,” says Rose, Managing Director of Orbica Europe in Berlin. This was not entirely unplanned. “We wanted an international city with a solid tech landscape and one that would attract talent,” says Rose, who met Janssen ten years ago as a colleague and stayed in touch. “Berlin is perfect for that in Europe!” However, the process of starting a company in Germany is more complicated than in New Zealand largely due to red tape, as the two Kiwis experienced first-hand. "But there are really helpful government organisations like Berlin Partner and GTAI that have supported us,” adds Rose, who moved to Germany with his wife in 2012. “Plus there's a huge start-up community." The company was also able to benefit from the city's talent pool of tech experts to find suitable Berlin Orbicans. Although it had to rely on New Zealand-based tech experts in the beginning, there is now a team in Berlin that handles projects locally and shares ideas with its Antipodean colleagues. "This is great because our employees learn a lot from each other and we can develop solutions very quickly. We use the different time zones to our advantage," says the New Zealander. While its customers in Germany are primarily large companies such as Thyssenkrupp, BASF and a multinational manufacturing conglomerate, Orbica in New Zealand serves a mix of companies as well as organisations and government authorities. New Zealand still makes up 80 per cent of its customer base, but Europe is gaining ground: “The Berlin team experienced quadruple growth in the past year. We expect this to continue in the near future,” says Rose, who optimistically reports of "exciting developments in the pipeline", despite - or perhaps even thanks to - Covid-19. While the lockdowns in Germany have restricted movement, the demand for transparency and visibility has increased due to the pandemic. "Here solutions such as Geo AI and location intelligence solutions are particularly valuable in order to provide support for data-driven decision," emphasises the Berlin resident.
Expansion: Australia instead of the USA
These solutions are still only available in the European and New Zealand markets. The launch of the SaaS product OrbViz in the US, which was planned for the end of 2020, has been postponed due to travel restrictions and uncertainties. "Covid has given us a year in which we can consolidate and prepare for expansion," says Janssen, who is relaxed about the situation. “We are actively planning to be in the Australian market in early 2021,” he adds. “Even if it is not a physical presence. We're still doing market research and honing our concept, but it's exciting."