If you want to see beautiful images of Earth from a million miles away, visit NASA’s EPIC website—just don’t expect to learn much about the economic or societal trends happening down below. For that, you’ll need Orbital Insight. The Mountain View, California–based company analyzes more than a million square kilometers of high-resolution imagery on a monthly basis from eight of the largest satellite constellations in orbit, and then uses machine-vision algorithms to put hard numbers on everything from the amount of water in reservoirs to the number of active fracking sites in North Dakota to the depth of poverty in Sri Lanka.
“We call it a macroscope,” says founder and CEO James Crawford, a former NASA robotics engineer who also led Google’s mission to scan millions of books and make them searchable online. The U.S. government is an Orbital customer, as are more than 70 financial firms, some of which link into Orbital Insight to make market calls. The most popular report measures American retail strength by counting the number of cars in shopping-mall parking lots and predicting daily consumer spending.
The newest offering, a World Oil Storage Index, could prove even more valuable: It determines global reserves by country by measuring the length of the shadows cast by the lids of 20,000 storage tanks. Orbital Insight’s goal is more than economic, says Crawford. It’s to “understand what we’re doing on the earth, and to the earth.” The company recently partnered with World Resources Institute to detect patterns, such as when roads appear in previously untouched areas, that could help stop deforestation before it takes place.