Focusing on Pandemic-caused “Ghost Towns”

Along with COVID-19’s spread as a global challenge comes the inevitable pictures highlighting the pandemic’s impact on all areas of the world. The images, provided by Earth observation (EO) companies like Maxar and Planet, are snapshots in time of areas on the Earth before COVID-19’s notoriety and after. The latest of these “ghost town” types of images were highlighted in a Wired.com post.


At the same time, Maxar is pushing out useful information on its blog. One of the company’s latest posts uses images of Iran and provides an analysis, based on imagery and other data, of the spread of COVID-19 in that country. Apparently, the Iranian government is not being honest with its citizenry, or itself, about COVID-19. In an inadvertent nod towards Mythbusters’ Adam Savage’s quote, “I reject your reality and substitute my own,” the Iranian government is not only failing its citizens, it’s failing its neighbors--also documented in the Maxar blog post.


Both types of posts are interesting and maybe informative, but they also point towards a question: who are these images for?


This is a question that I believe is plaguing some of the newer EO companies like Planet and Spire Global, while older ones, such as Maxar (once DigitalGlobe), have a better handle on an answer. In the near past, the government (be it in civil or military guise) was extremely interested in images of certain areas of the Earth. The government paid companies like Maxar well to provide products that helped “fill in the gaps” of government products obtained through government collection platforms.


Not too long ago, technology companies such as Microsoft and Google started buying up satellite-collected imagery for their mapping and navigation products. The imagery wasn’t high-resolution, but on a small smartphone screen, it didn’t need to be. The product already had significant advantages over a paper atlas: no grids, no turning of pages, no need to worry about map updates, etc. In essence, these companies bought expensive imagery, put it together with other parts of their mapping and navigation assets, and gave it away free.


Those two customer examples don’t represent all EO imagery customers (although I suspect the government makes up a majority of them). They do help illustrate the challenges posed to companies attempting to make a go at successfully becoming an EO business in the commercial sector with little to no reliance on government contracts.


The fact some of these companies appear befuddled about who their customers are is a distressingly money-losing if you’re one of those companies. You can see some of this confusion in the variety of Spire’s products, which range from weather, aircraft, and ship tracking, to Earth science. It’s extremely interesting to see so many different payloads offered on a single cubesat, but it also inadvertently portrays a lack of focus.


Little Clarity in EO


Looking at the missions of these companies doesn’t help illuminate who these imagery products are for. From Planet:


“Our mission is to image the entire Earth every day and make global change visible, accessible, and actionable.”


It sounds good but doesn’t tell you who will act on the company’s images that document global change. There also seems to be an assumption within that statement that global change is negative. It depends on what’s happening, I should think.


Spire’s mission statement is fuzzier:


“Spire Global’s mission is to inspire, lead and create the business of Earth Observation for the benefit of all. With operations all over the world, Spire maintains 24/7 coverage of the entire Earth.”


There seem to be a lot of “action” words there, but together what do they mean? How does EO as a business benefit the “all?” What’s inspiring about it?


Let’s continue the comparison with a potential customer, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). It would be fair to assume the NGA has its own suite of collection platforms, likely more diverse than just satellites. NGA’s mission is this:


“The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) delivers world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders.”


It’s interesting how clear the agency’s mission is considering the majority of its products fall into classified realms. The mission tells you who NGA’s customers are, what they are providing, and it tells you why customers might want their services/products (“decisive advantage”--that could be clearer).


Based on their mission statements alone, it appears Spire or Planet don’t have a specific customer in mind for their products. And Spire doesn’t even mention a product.

This is a problem.


Actionable Imagery--Who Acts?


Going back to the images that inspired this post. They are obviously good press for the companies releasing them and might help put the EO companies’ names at the forefront of the public’s mind. But what good does that do? The images and the changes between then and now are striking and make for interesting reading. Knowing that Iran is the equivalent of “that guy,” the one who refuses to wash hands and self-isolate, is a public service, but does the public really need to know? And what action would we take, anyway?


The customers who do need to know have been the traditional buyers of imagery: the government. The government can act on the images. The government probably tasked the companies to collect imagery of those areas in the first place. These images can help a government identify COVID-19 hotspots, and not only attempt to isolate them, but also attempt to help them. As the NGA’s mission statement includes, first responders can go into these areas with the tools and protection they believe they need based on what the imagery (and analysis thereof) shows them. The government is able to act when companies and individuals can’t.


To be clear, it’s laudable for these new EO companies to drum up commercial business. They’re building and running satellite constellations that can collect large amounts of data, daily. But drumming up a commercial business takes time. Commercial businesses typically don’t have the resources of the government, which likely makes each commercial transaction not as profitable. At the same time, there are many more commercial businesses out in the world than governments, so the potential to make more money overall seems evident.


But maybe it isn’t. In the “Market-Creation or Going Postal?” part of this post, I suggest these new EO companies appear to be walking back to the traditional government customer. For fighting against diseases like COVID-19, that provides the government with another valuable tool for keeping U.S. citizens safe. That’s no bad thing.


And perhaps with these companies providing a product the government is willing to pay for, they get time to figure out exactly who their commercial customers are.

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