These Maps Can Predict The Future

DigitalGlobe provides satellite images to Google Maps and U.S. intelligence agencies. Now the company wants to convince clients that its maps can predict terror attacks and oil pipeline leaks as well.

DigitalGlobe is best known as the company which provides much of Google Earth’s satellite imagery. It also has a healthy business keeping global militaries and intelligence agencies appraised of what’s happening on the ground. Now the company wants to add energy companies, utility providers, insurance agencies, and others to its client mix. In order to show off what it can do, DigitalGlobe created a showcase of its work in Africa for potential clients. The idea: DigitalGlobe’s work with predictive analytics, demographic, and infrastructure overlays will convince private companies to sign on for their services.


Why Africa? As DigitalGlobe’s Andre Kearns explained on the phone with me, the company did what it calls “human geography information surveys” (complicated geospatial data layers of demographics, energy sources, and other relevant information) for 30 countries; and half of these countries were in Africa. What was left unsaid is the fact that DigitalGlobe’s chief clients–American intelligence agencies and the armed services–have keen interests in Africa. Even beyond Somali piracy, issues as disjointed as Egyptian instability, the ongoing chaos in Congo, and Nigerian violence mean Africa is a hotpoint for American military and intelligence interest. Part of that has to do with the continent’s immense wealth, which China has done a great job of acquiring. In short, African instability is a burden for the American economy.

The company’s African showcase (sample slides are shown above), shows a mix of information available to DigitalGlobe customers. There is information on terrorist attacks by groups such as Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army, links to recent satellite imagery–much of it taken in recent months–and overlays explaining population, military movements, and more. Other parts of the company’s African work, not displayed in the showcase, include predictive data analytics sets for current events on the continent.

DigitalGlobe is well known as a satellite imaging firm that markets to large buyers like Google, Bing, and Esri, but its analytics capabilities have less of a hold on the marketplace. Kearns said DigitalGlobe wants to change that, especially when it comes to satellite imagery and geospatial data layers.

“If you can identify location-based patterns that correspond with past events, you can predict future events. One example–not in Africa–is using predictive analytics combined with the geographic datasets of a neighborhood to determine which blocks in a metropolitan area are more at risk for violent crime,” he says.

In the meantime, DigitalGlobe is putting that predictive analytics technology to interesting use, like predicting theft from Nigerian oil pipelines and predicting violence from Boko Haram and other organizations. Alongside intelligence agencies, non-governmental organizations make up a significant portion of large DigitalGlobe customers; one client is George Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel Project, which monitors alleged human rights violations in the Sudan.

DigitalGlobe’s appeal to potential customers is all about the power of maps. By using information on climate, demographics, weather patterns, and local economics, intelligence agencies and multinational corporations can hone in on events on the ground before they happen. It’s a far cry from Rand McNally, but if a mapping company can stop catastrophic oil spills, that’s a good thing.


[Images: DigitalGlobe]