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Web 2 Preview: DigitalGlobe: The World Is The Index

By - September 11, 2009

Dglobe closer.jpeg

I had an extraordinary day yesterday, in terms of who I got to talk with. Not only did I meet with several of FM’s partners – two Fortune 500 marketers, a major platform partner, and a major blogger – I also got to watch the launch of Ad Stamp and the complete schedule for the Web 2 Summit. But a highlight of the day had to be my chance to steal 30 or so minutes with the founder of DigitalGlobe, Dr. Walter Scott.  

Now why was I talking to Dr. Scott? Well, he’s presenting at the Web 2 Summit this year, and I get to work with him on how Digital Globe fits into our theme of WebSquared.

In Dr. Scott’s case, this task pretty much a layup.

Now, Web 2 is known for in depth interviews with titans of business like GE CEO Jeff Immelt, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, or former HP CEO and pending Senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina – all of them are coming this year. And it’s known for having the stalwarts of the Internet industry represented as well – leaders from Google, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL, Newscorp, and Microsoft will also be there.

But Web 2 is also known, I hope, for the High Order Bit – the short, mind blowing presentation of a new idea or new data that makes you step back and just say Wow.

To me, that’s what happened when I really grokked DigitalGlobe, a company with a billion dollar market cap that successfully went public in the midst of the worst recession since 1931.

What the company does is pretty simple, actually. It sends super expensive satellites into space, and takes high resolution, geographic-data tagged pictures of every square foot of the earth. It then makes these images available to anyone willing to pay* (and sometimes to those who can’t but really need the data, as it did with the recent LA fires).

Those images are, of course, digital. And they comprise, to echo my writing about search, nothing less than a database of surface reality, albeit from the point of view of outer space. This reality is objective, factual, and indifferent to politics. It can inform a mind bending number of new use cases. If you think about this database from the point of view of an Internet entrepreneur, well, It could become, to wax into a bit of hyperbole, fuel for a whole new ecosystem of value.

Allow me the use of a metaphor, one with which you are all quite familiar.

So think of search. What is search? Well, search is a database of everything that is worth knowing about on the web. It’s made by a crawler that pings web real estate and creates an index/database of what it finds. It’s served up as an application through a user interface that takes your queries and matches them to the best results in that database.

Simple, but that simplicity largely fueled Web 2 as we know it.

Now consider a new dataset for search, the dataset owned by DigitalGlobe. The “crawlers” are DigitalGlobe’s satellites. The “real estate” being pinged is every square foot of the earth. As with the web, some parts of the world are worth pinging more often than other parts. (“We don’t hit Greenland very often,” Dr. Scott told me. But during the Olympics, the company took a picture of Beijing *once every 8 seconds.* Imagine if this technology was around during Tiananmen). The data that satellite crawler captures is stored in a vast index/database. And that index is served up as a product through a UI, though in DigitalGlobe’s case, the UI is not yet scaled to a mass consumer use like Google.

Wait, check that, it is, in a way. DigitalGlobe provides the imagery you see in Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth. And while that information is really cool, and provides the foundation for a huge number of interesting applications (and controversy), things get really interesting when you bring two key pillars of search into the equation: Freshness and comprehensiveness.

Freshness is what is sounds like – how often does the crawler check back to the source and see what might have changed? And Comprehensiveness is equally self-describing – but in the case of satellite imagery, it’s not so much how *much* of the earth you have in your database (that would be the whole darn thing), but rather, how high the resolution of that data can be.

DGlobe city.jpeg

The data fueling Google and Microsoft’s web applications is good, but it’s not very fresh, and it’s resolution is limited. But that doesn’t mean DigitalGlobe doesn’t have far fresher data and way better resolution. It does. It just doesn’t sell it to Google. (And as I think about the company, I can’t help but think Google or Microsoft must be sharpening their pencils, sketching out scenarios for how they might acquire DigitalGlobe. But I get ahead of myself).

Imagine a time when DigitalGlobe’s crawlers scale across every square inch of the (interesting bits of the) earth at second-by-second freshness – the way Google’s crawlers do for the Web. And imagine a time when the data from this crawl becomes available to all of us, in near real time. Is it possible? Of course it is. You need more satellites, more CPUs, more storage, and some pretty amazing UI and use cases.

Far as I can tell, we have those components already made, just like Google’s infrastructure was not so much about its component parts as it was about how they were put to work in the service of a culture changing service.

Is your mind blown yet? Mine is, but then again, that happens a bit more frequently than your average bear, I’ll admit.

Back here on earth, I asked Dr. Scott two questions that bear repeating. First, who are DigitalGlobe’s largest customers (and how did they use the data)? Far and away, he said, the company’s largest customer is the US Government. Why? Well, they buy high resolution data of, say, a particular Afghan village, datestamp yesterday. Then they give that data to soldiers on the ground, who go into that village and ask folks questions like “What were those heavy loads being moved around in the town square by these five men at around noon yesterday?”

Why, might you ask, why doesn’t the US use its super secret spy satellites to give ground troops this data? Well, because the information on those spy satellites is classified. It’s super secret. But DigitalGlobe’s information is commercial, and unclassified. In essence, the US Government uses DigitalGlobe for the same reason it uses FedEx to move military supplies around the world: it’s just faster, better, cheaper, and easier.

OK, so there’s the answer for why the US Government is such a big customer (and it’s not just military, of course. There’s NASA, there’s NIH, there’s Agriculture, you get the picture, no pun intended). What was my second question?

Well, my second question was informed by the concept of search and my rhapsody around the implications of the world as a database. Might DigitalGlobe consider offering a fresh, high-resolution database of its imagery to developers world wide – replete with business rules for commercialization? Imagine the use cases – for the images are not simply images, they are laden with latent meta-data – interpretive data on everything from how crops are growing to how traffic is moving to how governments are treating their citizens…..might DigitalGlobe consider doing such a thing?

“That would be cool,” was Dr. Scott’s only answer (he is an officer of a public company, after all.)

It sure would be. That would be so WebSquared.

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*From the company’s own product descriptions:

DigitalGlobe’s CitySphereTM product features 60 cm or better orthorectified color imagery for 300 pre-selected cities worldwide. These GIS ready cities are available as off the shelf products and ready for immediate delivery.

With over 37 million km2 of 3 inch to 2 foot resolution color imagery of select American and international markets, DigitalGlobe’s Orthorectified Aerial Imagery is part of our complete offering of the most current high resolution aerial and satellite imagery and the largest library of earth imagery available anywhere. In addition to the largest library of aerial imagery anywhere, we maintain a complete, highly accurate USA basemap at 1 meter resolution or better, with major cities at 6 in to 2 ft resolution.

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  • Michael

    Yep, their product and tech is great, but they only treat their bulk customers like customers should be treated – they don’t care about ‘small’ orders. In 2002 i filled out their x page form and ordered an image via DigitalGlobe Europe in Rome. They took the $5k and sent me a low-res jpg after a couple of weeks with the area covered in clouds.
    And that was that. No reply to my emails. No delivery of the ordered product. No money-back. After that experience I wouldn’t recommend them as a company to do business with!

  • http://heliophage.wordpress.com Oliver Morton

    Hey John — remember commissioning this? http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.08/spy_pr.html

    At the conference you should ask him about adding the Digital Elevation Model that that TerraSarX/TandemX should generate to the set — it could provide a much better control for the non-urban

  • Edward Jurkevics

    John,

    I’m sorry to say that you didn’t really grok all that much from your interview with Dr. Scott. Any one satellite (DigitalGlobe has a nominal constellation of 3 satellites) can image any given spot on the globe in populated latitudes about once every 2-3 days. You misunderstood your conversation, because neither DigitalGlobe nor any commercial imaging firm (i.e. GeoEye) can image Beijing – or anywhere – every eight seconds. Every 2-3 days weather permitting, maybe.

    This matters. Other bloggers have already picked up your on post as an alarm about the infringement on privacy that these satellites represent. In fact these commercial imaging satellites cannot readily identify any particular car, let alone a person, because their resolution is insufficient. I hope you will grok this and set the record straight.

    -edj