My First Impression of Orbital Insight (One Month In)

A little over a month ago I joined Orbital Insight, a geospatial analytics company, as head of product. I want to share my initial experience working for this amazing company on its mission to help organizations understand what is happening on and to Earth and make that information available to decision makers for common good.

Before I cover my initial impression of Orbital Insight I want to share a little bit about my background and history to give it some context.

My Early Passion for Sustainable Development

Since college, I have had a passion for sustainability, alternative energy and innovative programs to help lift people out of poverty. In college I led the Rainforest Conservancy, a multi-campus organization focusing on helping indigenous people build and grow sustainable development businesses in the Amazon. I created my own major I named Global Resource Management and spent a year studying the correlation between access to and flow of information and economic development, and worked on a proposal to shift development funds to community centered hubs connected to the newly invented Internet (yes, I am that old) to provide access to educational programs, trade and commerce.

I spent a summer with a group of college students, working for Charles McNeill at the UNDP, helping draft the foundation of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Trust Fund designed to help tackle our planet’s most pressing environmental problems. The GEF has since its founding provided over $18 billion in grants and mobilized an additional $94 billion in co-financing for more than 4,500 projects in 170 countries.

At the end of my senior year, an old high school friend and I wrote a proposal to the UNICEF to build an information system to help coordinate relief efforts and social mobilization across UNICEF’s field offices. To our surprise, the proposal was accepted and funded. After nine intense months with a small team of engineers we finished and rolled out the solution across many of the larger field offices around the world. I have never since felt the same deep sense of satisfaction of making an impact for such an important cause and organization.

After UNICEF I spent two years at McKinsey & Co. and the rest of my career, up until now, focused on building enterprise software solutions, designed to help large corporations grow and become more profitable, with little to no impact on the things I deeply care about.

It kept nagging me that I was not contributing to making a bigger difference to the things that really matter. My family and old friends who knew me from school kept giving me a (justifiably) hard time for not following my passion. I kept struggling to find a place where I could combine my professional skills with my passion for the environment and humanitarian causes, while paying the bills.

Why Orbital Insight

Land use across the island of Sumatra showing natural and planted forests and their relationship to protected regions using AI on satellite images.

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has enabled the human species to grow and prosper in countless ways; harvesting and exploiting our natural resources for food, energy and manufacturing ever more complex consumer goods. But we have done all of this in extremely inefficient and unsustainable ways. In the process, we have changed the surface of the earth and its biodiversity to where it’s barely recognizable from just a few hundred years ago. Farmed animals now account for more than double the biomass of our seven billion people on earth, whereas wild animals have been reduced to a third of human biomass.

Needless to say, we are not only depleting our biodiversity and natural resources, but we are also on a path that is bringing about our own extinction.

Orbital Insight was founded with the core belief that AI can be used to further humanitarian, economic and environmental progress. Orbital Insight’s technology has the potential to open our eyes by tapping into the enormous flow of data from micro-satellites, high resolution satellites, radar satellites, aerial drones and connected devices to understanding what is happening on and to the Earth at an unprecedented scale and level of detail.

Leveraging artificial intelligence, computer vision and cloud computing, Orbital Insight’s platform make sense of this data in real-time across millions of locations on earth. This capability opens up thousands of possibilities, some of which we have started to deliver to organizations across the public sector, commercial and non-governmental-organizations around the world.

It’s been amazing to see the accelerating flow of demand for these types of analysis with new and creative solutions that goes beyond the old, manual, outdated ways of measuring economic and environmental activities around the world. The business needs we are able to address in new and novel ways is truly amazing. While still being an early-stage company, Orbital has already created a positive impact on the world, using AI for good causes. Here are some examples:

Automatic classification of buildings and roads in the northwestern portion of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

1. Updating maps (roads and buildings), especially in remote rural areas, where mapping records often lack 80% of the actual road networks to:

  • Provide updated maps of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to emergency responders from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders in the latest Ebola crisis.
  • Help the World Bank update decades-old maps of central Africa.
  • Update maps with newly developed roads in Japan at 15% the cost of traditional manual methods.
Paradise California: Orbital Insight identifies over 1,900 buildings destroyed by the Camp Fire, November 2018.

2. Analyzing the impact of natural disasters and man-made conflicts in real time to:

Automatic classification of buildings in rural Mexico.

3. Measuring local poverty levels in more scalable, timely and cost effective ways with the World Bank.

4. Helping global consumer goods companies fulfill their pledge to end deforestation-linked palm oil production in partnership with Global Forest Watch (GFW) and World Resources Institute (WRI).

I am deeply humbled to have the opportunity to play a part in supporting Orbital Insight’s mission to help the world understand what is happening on and to the Earth. The world’s leading decision makers have come to us to answer their questions about the world. Our job now is to make sure we scale our ability to address more of these types of engagements our world desperately needs.

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