Earth observation is a growing business area in the space industry. Many of the constellations being put into orbit focus on Earth, collecting images of our planet. The EO data they collect can help all sorts of people with decision-making. The full potential of EO data, though, is stymied by various issues, one of which is access. To learn more about how and why it is important to diversify access to EO data, we spoke to James Slifierz, who is the CEO of SkyWatch.
Why do you think it’s important to give more people access to EO data?
The question of why more people should have access to EO data is similar to any question about why democratizing technology is important. Why exactly is democratization of technology or data a positive thing? A major reason is that it broadens the scope of people who can use technology to solve problems. A challenge in EO has been that, historically, it’s hard to access and understand the data. This has limited people’s potential to leverage its capabilities.
In terms of potential influence in our daily lives, EO should be seen as similar to GPS. GPS is now so influential because it became affordable, accessible, and standardized. Barriers to entry were reduced for new customers and users. People came up with new ways to leverage GPS. Now, there is a massive and still-growing market for services that wouldn’t work without GPS.
GPS has an amazing history. When Bill Clinton decided to make it a civilian technology, as opposed to a strictly military one, there were a lot of skeptics in government. They asked, “What will civilians use GPS for?” When the technology became publicly available, people expected the largest market would be for sailboats. Obviously, it’s turned out that GPS has been leveraged to provide all sorts of unforeseen services – it helps a lot more people than just folks with sailboats. This profusion of services just goes to show the power of enabling lots of people to access and leverage technology for their own use cases. To sum up: It’s important to break barriers to accessing technologies because the world is full of ideas we haven’t yet tapped into.
To this end, what have you been doing with your company?
Our thesis is what I just explained. The benefit of making data widely available underpins everything we do. Our company exists to make EO affordable, accessible, and standardized, much in the same way the GPS ecosystem developed. We believe that by doing that, we will enable people to build applications and solutions. We do this with an API on one end. People who need to consume data use the API to integrate the data into their workflow or software applications. We have an easy-to-use interface that enables them to access many sensors.
TerraStream faces the supply side – the satellite operators. It’s making it easy for people launching satellites to capture, manage, and distribute the data they collect. It takes away a lot of the difficulties of getting data to market. Every problem we try to solve in our company regards getting data from space sensors to any IP address on the planet – whether that be an iPad on a farm or a cell phone in a tsunami. Our goal is to make that process superefficient.
What do you recommend for people who would like to work in the EO field?
I think what’s interesting about EO today is that a person doesn’t need extensive experience in EO in order to work for or in the EO industry. At SkyWatch, 75–90% of the people we interview have never worked in this field before. Because companies like ours are trying to build technologies that appeal to large markets, we are trying to get people who understand how customer firms will use data. We want people who have experience using other amazing API products and who want to build similar products for this industry.
I think that the space industry, broadly, is where the Internet was in 1996 or 1997. There are many people from outside the industry who are moving in. There’s a lot of growth, but there’s also a lot of maturing. We’re trying to learn about what’s worked in other industries and apply those lessons here in space – lessons regarding business, financing, and pricing models.
I’m seeing companies everywhere that are trying to hire people from outside. So what I think is key is this: if you’ve been successful in another industry, and if that can be replicable in this industry, you’re what EO companies are looking for. We’re trying to go from a hobbyist industry to something that is adopted by mass markets. Doing that will require people from a variety of backgrounds who understand how mass markets use data products.