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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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A Preview: This Year's Web 2 Program (Newly Added Speakers!)

By - August 31, 2009

web 2 09.pngI may have been “on vacation” over much of the past month, but as usual, I was working, and part of my work was framing out and filling in the program for the sixth annual Web 2 Summit. Tim O’Reilly and I had a very hard job trying to top last year’s program, given it featured Lance Armstrong, Al Gore, Edgar Bronfman, John Doerr, Jerry Yang, and so many more.  

But I think we’ve managed to top it. Pasted below is a note we sent out recently with an overview of the program. But even since then, we’ve had a couple of pretty major new additions, both from the world of government and policy:

- Aneesh Chopra -  America’s first ever appointed CTO will join us this year, in conversation with Tim O’Reilly (for Tim’s take and a video of Chopra, click here). A charasmatic figure and proven leader, Chopra is charged with developing national strategies for technology investments – overseeing the U.S. Government’s $150 billion R&D budget.

- Austan Goolsbee – Chief U.S. Economist, member of the Council of Economic Advisers, serving the executive office as staff director on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) – an outfit established within the Department of Treasury charged with analyzing and understanding the state of our financial markets, banking and commerce systems in order to inform decision making around economic policy. Between the CEA and PERAB, Austan is working to fix America’s economic standing both domestically and internationally. No small feat. (See his interview with Jon Stewart here).

More on the rest of the program:

Day one covers broad ground — opening with an in-depth conversation with Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast — and moving into a series of powerful High Order Bits and discussions around government policy and healthcare. Then Jeff Immelt, Chairman and CEO of GE, will share his thoughts before our dinner Q&A session with maverick Mark Cuban, hosted by ModernMom CEO and Dancing with the Stars champion Brooke Burke (Mark had his own stint on Dancing With the Stars, as you may recall…).

After kicking off with morning workshops, day two features insightful one-on-one conversations with Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, and Qi Lu, President at Microsoft, who’s leading the recently announced partnership between the two companies. Later in the day, media gurus will discuss the future of their industry, including Chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. of the New York Times, CEO Dan Rosensweig of RedOctane, and CEO Richard Rosenblatt of Demand Media.

Mid-day we’ll check in with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, then launch our new High Order Ignite program — a session of dynamic, rapid-fire presentations that highlight ground-breaking and viable technologies that may well change the world. After a focused session on sensor and augmented reality applications, we’ll wrap up the day with Twitter CEO Evan Williams.

Last, but definitely not least, our third day will include conversations with the CEOs of Intel, Adobe, AOL, and Jon Miller, head of digital for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. We’re also bringing back our famed Teen Panel, where we’ll hear from the generation that will most shape the future success or failure of our industry’s efforts. And in a manner more fitting than we could have planned, we’ll close our conference with the man who started it all — Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

And those are just the highlights. Let’s not forget the slew of new speakers we’ve added including:

Erin McKean, CEO of Wordnik. (An API for language? Why not?!)

Sundar Pichai, VP at Google. (Responsible for Chrome OS, Google’s pointed response to Windows.)

Steve Schneider, Program Director at WestEd. (Walking the talk, Steve has plans to launch the first-ever standard for technology literacy across the U.S. by 2012.)

Cynthia Warner, President of Sapphire Energy. (If Sapphire’s biofuel plans scale, we have reason for hope in the world of energy.)

If you’d like to come to the Web 2.0 Summit, let us know by requesting an invite. I have discounts for Searchblog and Twitter readers (ping me here or jbat at battellemedia dot com), and I really look forward to seeing you October 20-22 at the Westin San Francisco!

When Value Is Created, Let It Be Curated At Scale

By - June 25, 2009

Facebook’s opening up even more, as CNet reports. Facebook has posted an update to its “Publisher” settings – basically, the instrumentation to your status updates – that makes it possible to broadcast the value you create in the social web through composition – of a status update, a blog post, or any other action that you might wish to declare. You can instrument it to be seen only by your network, or your network’s network, or everyone – and it’s that everyone part that makes Facebook a lot more like Twitter in terms of the ability for developers to create interesting executions based on that firehose. Think about what Microsoft did with ExecTweets, but with Facebook scale. Of course, that’s just the tip o’ the iceberg. Exciting stuff.

English's Millionth Word: Web 2.0

By - June 10, 2009

web2.pngFor the past few days I’ve been focused on a final draft of an essay, co-authored with Tim O’Reilly, focusing on the theme of this year’s Web 2.0 Summit. It’s rewarding work, reminiscent of the early days of Wired, when I’d regularly edit or write long form pieces focusing on big ideas and the future, but grounded in real world examples from today.  

But writing and editing this kind of stuff is also challenging work, and I often procrastinate, as I am right now, by writing a blog post or skimming the web for interesting tidbits. And boy, did I find a funny one today. According to CNN, the term “Web 2.0″ is not only now an “official word” in the English language, it’s also the millionth one, of all things. (This according to the Global Language Monitor, a website that uses algorithms to determine when words enter the language.)

Too funny!

The theme for this year’s conference is “Web Squared,” a very real nod to the idea that “Web 2.0,” five years in, needs to be refreshed. From the draft Tim and I are working on:

The Web is evolving so quickly, it’s clear the “versioning” terminology that we borrowed from the software industry – Version 1.0, 2.0, etc. – no longer captures the pace and impact of the Web’s true nature. The web opportunity is no longer growing arithmetically, it’s growing exponentially. Hence our theme for this year: Web Squared.

We plan to post a draft of this paper soon, and will be asking for all your input in making it better. Meanwhile, it’s kind of cool that a term Tim and his partner Dale Dougherty coined way back in 2003 has made it into the history books. I wonder if and when “Web Squared” might make it in?! I guess we’ll know in five or so years…

Cloudera

By - March 17, 2009

cloudera.png Much buzz early this week on the launch of Cloudera, for its focus (distributed platform computing), its philosophy (best described as Not Google Or Anyone Else For That Matter, based on Hadoop, a Yahoo-driven open source competitor to Google’s MapReduce), and its team (from Yahoo, Oracle, Google….).

Very worth keeping an eye on.

Cloudera’s launch post. SEL’s coverage. NYT coverage.

Previous coverage of Hadoop and Doug Cutting on Searchblog.

OpenID

By - October 30, 2008

I’m watching this unfold, OpenID, Facebook Connect, Y!OS, Microsoft support, Google support…it’s supposedly a big group hug, but it feels like a war, folks. And it’s not pretty. Note this:

A couple of hours ago, the Google Security Team posted an article claiming that Google’s made the switch to OpenID, joining Yahoo! and Microsoft in the ranks OpenID providers.

But it looks like someone may have been a bit to hasty to pull that switch (perhaps itching to get some of the limelight Microsoft has been receiving for adding OpenID to all Live ID accounts just the day before yesterday)… because whatever it is that Google has released support for, it sure as hell isn’t OpenID, as they even so kindly point out in their OpenID developer documentation

I hate to say it but watch this space.

That Said…Web 2 Conversations, Mark Zuckerberg

By - October 20, 2008

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I am interviewing a lot of interesting folks starting two or so weeks from now at Web 2, Chris DeWolfe, Edgar Bronfman, Larry Brilliant, Lance Armstrong, Paul Otellini, Jack Klues, Michael Pollan, Elon Musk, Shai Agassi, and many more.

But I thought I’d start by asking you all this one question: Mark Zuckerberg is coming back (check the video of our interview here). What should I ask him this time? I have a lot of thoughts, but thought I’d start by asking you all….