The Only Way is Up
Edinburgh’s aim to become the ‘Data Capital of Europe’ is allowing analysts to capture commercial opportunities offered by hi-tech satellite mapping
By Kim McAllister
Iain Woodhouse’s team is mapping the floods in Southern Malawi using satellite data. The last time the area flooded, 170 people died – so Iain’s hoping the information they can give the government will help them save lives.
The chief executive of Edinburgh-based Carbomap is in Nairobi with environmental consultants LTS. They’re training the government forestry departments from Mozambique and Zambia how to use radar satellite data to map their forests and therefore better control deforestation.
“They’re nearly there, we’re coming to the end of the project,” he explained.
“Mozambique should be doing operational national forest mapping using satellite radar by the end of the year.”
Carbomap is one of a number of companies spinning out from the various research areas in the School of GeoSciences at Edinburgh University.
It’s an ecosystem that’s developing rapidly.
Three years ago the European Space Agency launched the Sentinel satellites to monitor land and ocean through radar.
The data they provide are freely available, but the expertise required to translate this into usable intelligence is considerable.
This is where Edinburgh University shines, according to Dr Murray Collins. He’s the Chancellor’s Fellow in Data Driven Innovation and theme Lead for Space and Satellite at the university’s new innovation hub The Bayes Centre.
“At the university we are very well-placed to capitalise on the opportunities these data provide,” he said.
“We have the combination of scientific and programming skills to create algorithms to process and analyse these data, in the context of information about forests and agriculture, for example.
“The palm oil industry represents a huge commercial opportunity – companies need to prove they are not causing deforestation to comply with global targets signed by companies like Mars and Nestlé. Edinburgh companies like Carbomap, GSI and Ecometrica help them adapt their practices and demonstrate their compliance.”
The final piece of the puzzle is investment – and that’s where the City Deal comes in.
Announced in August 2018 at the university jointly by the First Minister and Prime Minister, the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal is a £1.3 billion fund to drive growth across the area.
Half of this fund – £661 million – is dedicated to data driven innovation.
This means that 100,000 people can be trained in data skills over the next decade and 400 data-enabled startups can be created over the same period – space and satellite is a huge part of this plan.
The Executive Director of the Data Driven Innovation Programme is Jarmo Eskelinen.
“The city is punching well above its weight in many domains, but we have a tendency not to brag about it,” he said.
“If we don’t shout, we won’t be noticed. We want to be the Data Capital of Europe so we have to provide something valuable. Knowledge sharing activity will be at the heart of the programme.
“The promise we made to the government, in exchange for £660m to build the assets, is that we will significantly increase innovation, put £100m of the university’s own money in and at least double that from the private sector. We intend to blow it out of the water! We’ve already reached our target for the year and we’re only half way through.”
Against a backdrop of Brexit uncertainty, data is the sure bet in terms of economic growth.
As satellites, traditionally owned by governments, move increasingly into private ownership, the volume and standard of data is growing rapidly.
The next generation dataset due to arrive will be from GEDI, a satellite which was launched in December and will start providing data in middle to late 2019.
Dr Steve Hancock, lecturer in 3D Environmental Data Capture at Edinburgh University, has spent years working in the team which developed GEDI’s data software.
“GEDI uses LIDAR, optimised for measuring forest structures,” he explained.
“Fuse this with existing data and the information available about the types and health of forests, for example, is extremely comprehensive.”
As new as this ecosystem is, the economic gains for Scotland could be enormous – the sector is potentially worth £2.5 billion.
The challenge, as it screams ahead in its technology, is taking companies and governments along for the ride.
Ecometrica, another Edinburgh-based satellite data mapping company, saw its turnover increase 112% last year.
“There’s a shift to seeing information as an operational cost, a productive factor,” explained Sarah Middlemiss, Space Programme Manager.
“Raw data isn’t required; it’s lost on most people, especially those making decisions at a high level. What’s needed today are the insights and the actual information brought out of that data in easy-to-digest interfaces and reports.
“Senior managers need to make decisions and take action, so their questions are more like “Is my supply chain at risk, are we complying with this particular regulation, what do we actually need to do here?”
These real world issues are being tackled at the Bayes Centre in Edinburgh’s Potterow. It is the first of five innovation centres operating under the DDI Programme and was full within two months of opening in October last year.
Director Michael Rovatsos explained there is a real mix of private companies and university researchers working together to change how we live.
“One of the collaborations is Orbital Microsystems, a US company looking to launch 40 new satellites,” he said.
“These will update information for airlines every 15 minutes, rather than the twice daily updates currently available. This will mean they can recalculate flight routes almost in real time, saving fuel, benefitting the environment and perhaps even leading to cheaper tickets for passengers.”
What’s encouraging is the importance of ethics within this satellite data ecosystem.
“We want to excel in doing data right,” Jarmo concluded.
“We want to strike the balance with privacy and ethics.
“It’s a tricky combination because frameworks break down when you’re using machine learning so we need to develop a tool-like approach so we can trust the systems. It’s a major area of development. If we want to create a lasting mark in the data world with our DDI programme, we’re betting on ethical data.”
Glasgow manufacturers, Edinburgh tech firms and local expertise give the Scottish space ecosystem all it needs to rocket forward, discovers Kim McAllister.
“More satellites are built in Glasgow than any other city in the world,” said Malcolm Macdonald, Space Lead at the Scottish Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications.
Isn’t it interesting that the city famous for ship-building should now be leading the way with spaceships?
Where we once thought of space as putting a man on the moon, the industry is now much more focused on the data coming from satellites. Scotland is particularly well-placed to capitalise on this growing sector – with many agreeing a Great British Space Age is dawning.
Since the Space Industry Act was passed in March, it has led to millions of pounds worth of funding being made available to companies looking to expand in the industry. Perhaps most excitingly, £31.5 million has been set aside for the development of a spaceport in the most northerly tip of Sutherland. Highlands and Islands Enterprise has begun gauging interest in designing, building and operating the port.
This would be the only launch facility in Europe – and has the potential to complete the circle of services already offered by the Scottish space industry.
“Launch is the one thing we cannot do in Scotland,” Malcolm explained. “Getting the satellites into orbit is the missing piece of the puzzle – the spaceport would give us full end-to-end capacity.”
The capacity includes not just the building of satellites, but also the software development and processing of the data they provide. In fact, these downstream services form 90 per cent of the global market. Scotland’s universities are playing a key role in developing not only the talent, but the market.
At Edinburgh University, Dr Murray Collins is the Chancellors Fellow in Data Innovation: Space and Satellite analysis. Working through the Bayes Centre, Murray’s role is to develop new research and partnerships with industry and public sector to increase the uptake of data-driven innovation.
“Organisations that don’t embrace this technology generally will be left behind,” he said. “What’s really exciting right now in the space sector is the fact, at the same time as huge volumes of data have become freely available from satellites, the technology to process, analyse and distribute that data is developing rapidly.”
Murray’s work so far has focused on data analytics to detect deforestation and map landscapes, but increasingly companies are keen to use the data to monitor crop yields and pollution.
The environment is supportive – Edinburgh’s £1.3bn City Deal, of which Murray’s role is a part, aims to train 100,000 data scientists and foster 400 data-enabled start-up companies in the next 15 years, and funding is forthcoming from the UK Space Agency (UKSA).
Chris Lee, UKSA chief scientist, said Scotland has always focused on the development of technology and demonstrating utility. He said: “We’re seeing a change in the nature of what we mean by ‘space’. Scotland is developing a very strong ecosystem around applications. The opportunity for growth is there.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to in this rapidly developing industry agrees that the goal is for inclusive growth. A broad diversity of industries can benefit from satellite data and Scotland is uniquely placed to capitalise on this opportunity.
From the cutting edge satellites being built by businesses like Clyde Space and Alba Orbital in Glasgow to the big data processing happening in companies like Ecometrica, LTS and Astrosat in Edinburgh, the expertise and technology is impressive for a nation of five million.
UKSA’s ambition is to address 10 per cent of the global market by 2030 – that’s worth £40bn to the UK. Translate that to the economic opportunity for Scotland, where, according to the Space Sector Report 2017, one-fifth of the workforce resides, and we have the potential to attract £2.5bn.
There’s no doubt this is a time of transition for the space industry. We are in a perfect storm of freely available data, sophisticated software to translate it and the expertise to apply it – all while satellites are moving increasingly from public into private ownership.
Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UKSA, told me Scotland has a strong heritage in the space sector. “Earlier this year we announced more than £30m of funding to support a spaceport in Sutherland which will build on the country’s global reputation for manufacturing small satellites,” he said.
“In addition, Scotland will benefit from a £2m government fund to help horizontal launch sites such as Glasgow and Prestwick grow their sub-orbital flight, satellite launch and spaceplane ambitions which could attract companies from all over the world to invest in the region.”
As Brexit uncertainty affects us all, perhaps we should be broadening our horizons and aiming for the stars.
New firms are banding together as Brexit uncertainty threatens the ecosystem’s future, writes Kim McAllister from the Scottish Tech Startup Awards.
“This is a bunch of people who are hugely important to the future of Scotland’s economy,” Brian Corcoran, chief executive and co-founder of tech conference Turing Fest, tells me, while we are standing at the bar at Edinburgh’s Central Hall.
But you probably wouldn’t recognise many faces until you heard their employers’ names. Administrate, CareSourcer, FreeAgent, Snap40 – all international success stories following in unicorn Skyscanner’s footsteps.
The Snap40 team is celebrating after two big wins: the healthtech has just scooped StartUp of the Year and B2B Company of the Year, hardly surprising given their $8 million (more than £6m) investment announcement earlier this year. Fintech platform Nucleus Financial, recently floated on the Alternative Investment Market, has been crowned ScaleUp of the Year, while accounting software FreeAgent’s Ed Molyneux was named CEO of the Year.
Corcoran and his team behind Turing Fest are expanding the brand tonight with the inaugural Scottish Tech StartUp Awards. Much like the education-focused tech conference, this is different. No three-course meal, no after-dinner speeches and a more than casual dress code.
“Well, no, there is no dress code,” he had warned me in advance. “We want people to be comfortable. We’re trying to create something for those in the tech start-up ecosystem. We knew if it was £150 a ticket, only the management team would come, and this is not a corporate-style event. Some people have bought tickets for their entire 15-strong team – we completely sold out at 530 people. It’s a party.”
According to digital technologies trade association ScotlandIS, 11 per cent of the tech industry’s talent comes from non-UK, EU citizens, a figure Corcoran calls “very conservative”.
“I wouldn’t be applying for a mortgage, put it that way,” he said. “I’m Irish, my wife is Scottish-Brazilian and our daughter was born here in Edinburgh. I’ve lived here for eight years but after 29 March will I still have the right to live and work here?”
He is already seeing the effect of the uncertainty among colleagues. Some software engineers have left their posts and others haven’t taken up job offers.
“Imagine the impact on Scotland if we lost a fifth of our tech workforce,” he says. When I admit I don’t really want to, he insists. “Well, we have to because that’s what we’re facing, not to mention the three million UK citizens living in Europe who might not be able to stay.”
Given the war for tech talent – those with the necessary software development and engineering skills required by fast-growing companies – this is a major bump in the road. It’s estimated there are only 20 million developers in the world, the equivalent of the population of Romania. I ask if it’s wise to get so many of them in the one room tonight. “Well, I’d say the benefits outweigh the risks,” he laughs. “There will always be competition and different coders suit different stages of business development so it’s natural that there’s movement in the market. You’ll notice not many people are talking business tonight…”
It’s true – they are too busy gathering teams for the real life video games and drinking at the free bar to consider moonlighting. Until you’re working in the sector it’s difficult to appreciate the openness and collaboration. Corcoran keeps using the word “ecosystem” and it’s an approach mirrored by Entrepreneurial Scotland and others in the space.
As a young industry, it is setting its own rules. Many of those at the top of the game, for examples, John Peebles, chief executive of training management system Administrate, make themselves very accessible. He gives half an hour a week to anyone who wants to talk to him and encourages his peers to do the same. The gap between the engineering and creative talent is closing as investors, founders, tech teams and organisations like Turing Fest work to bring everyone together.
The fact that so many of them support these awards, and are reinvesting their own profits into new start-ups, like Skyscanner’s Gareth Williams’ recent investment in fast-growing family messaging service Kindaba, shows the genuine desire to foster talent and learn from each other – even if that means a bit of swapsies amongst the staff.
“I think I’m most excited about seeing these companies get the recognition they deserve,” Corcoran concludes. “This is the first Scottish Tech StartUp Awards and hopefully, in 2023, winners will look back and see that the previous nominees have gone on to huge success. There will be some kudos attached to it. But for now, I just want to see everyone in this room in the limelight.”