3 Cool GIS-Enabled Startups

Last month, I attended the Esri International User Conference in San Diego and was introduced to the esoteric world where data and mapping collide. Esri is a pioneer in the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) space, and seeing how users put their software to use is pretty eye opening.

As a journalist, one of the more interesting presentations I attended was from two reporters from the Seattle Times who discussed how they tapped into public records available through Esri ArcGIS to better understand the Oso mudslide.

For instance, they were able to learn through satellite maps about logging in a restricted area that accelerated erosion and most likely contributed to the slide.

Another highlight of the Esri UC was the Urban Observatory project. Developed in partnership with Richard Saul Wurman and Radical Media, the Urban Observatory helps cities (and their citizens) use the common language of maps to understand patterns in diverse datasets.

The Urban Observatory lets users compare such things as urban densities among various cities, growth patterns, flood zones, noise pollution, and a slew of other variables.

For me, though, the highlight was the afternoon I spent meeting cutting-edge GIS startups. Below are three of my favorites. I had planned to cover more, but a good chunk of these startups are still in stealth mode. They were at the conference to learn, rather than to peddle their wares. Hopefully, you’ll see more of them here soon.

Startup: Placemeter

What they do: Provide a real-time, open data platform that uses sensors placed by community members, as well as public video feeds, to quantify and index the physical world.

Headquarters: New York, NYPlacemeterLogo

CEO: Alex Winter. Before starting Placemeter, Alex was the co-Founder and CEO of LTU Technologies.

Founded: 2013

Funding: To date, Placemeter has raised $1.7 million from a variety of backers including NEA, Triplepoint Capital, and Kima Ventures. Placemeter is also an alumna of Techstars’ Spring 2013 class.

What I like about them: Getting actionable insights about a place can be difficult and expensive. Let’s say you are an urban designer for a growing city. Your job is to make sure that the city maintains pedestrian mobility as the city grows. You want to design and execute plans based on good, actionable data about how pedestrians move throughout your city. How do you get that data?

Traditionally, you would have to commission costly traffic studies, where legacy firms send out counters for a few hours during a week and count how many people are walking on a sidewalk or intersection. Not only is this approach expensive, but it’s flawed. You’re really only seeing a small slice of time, and for any statistical insight, a small sample size is problematic.

With Placemeter, you can leverage your city’s camera network and Placemeter’s distributed camera network to extract that data in real-time with greater persistence than those one-off traffic studies. You could establish a significant data record that would give you great insight into how your city moves and how your urban design changes affect that movement.

Using sensors implemented in and by community members and public video feeds in cities, Placemeter is building a data platform that detects and quantifies traffic and behavioral patterns, wait times, and more – all in real time. By applying this data layer to cities around the world, Placemeter is helping create a more efficient, people centric, and accountable urban community to save energy and time.

Customers include The New York City Mayors Office of Data Analytics, Dylan’s Candy Bar, and the Downtown Project in Las Vegas.

Key differentiator: Rather than using manual human counters or technology that stores counts on local machines, Placemeter uses automatic algorithms and a web-based platform to deliver real-time analytics. This approach both delivers more actionable raw data and enables predictions based on large datasets that have been unavailable until now.

To quantify activity in the world, Placemeter implements video sensors in people’s homes, businesses, restaurants that are facing outside, streets or public places. These videos are automatically analyzed to count people, vehicles, bicycles and other things, track their speed and their destinations. Placemeter can count people coming in and out of stores or buildings, and infer how many people are inside, by only looking at the outside. Placemeter’s algorithm then acquires, processes, and analyzes these real-world images to produce this data, and subsequently deliver information and predict patterns in cities.

Placemeter can also predict activity—activity is correlated with weather, holidays, time of events, days of the week, time of the day, calendar information, public video streams, crowdsourced data, etc.

Competitive Landscape: Placemeter is uniquely positioned, but startups based on the exploding connected sensor sector are popping up all over the place. Competitors include Nomi, Bay Sensors, and Miovision.

Placemeter argues that competing startups focus on in-store data, creating data-sets silos only available to individual customers. By creating a distributed data network, Placemeter is able to provide contextual data and predictions that are unavailable to those using other solutions.

Technologically, competing startups use Wi-Fi pinging and iBeacons to track cell phone usage that they then translate into pedestrian counts. This data tends to be less accurate than video-based analytics, as well as pose a much more serious privacy violation to individuals. Because they use individual phones to create their data, they must de-identify the data before delivering it. No de-identification is perfect, though. Placemeter starts by never identifying anyone with their algorithms, thus eliminating the need for de-identification. At Placemeter, privacy is built in. Video feeds are immediately converted into data and the videos are then deleted from Placemeter’s servers.

Startup: Early Warning Labs

What they do: Provide a wide-area earthquake early warning system.

Headquarters: Santa Monica, CAEWS-logo

CEO: Joshua Bashioum, who has taken an unusual route to becoming the CEO of a startup. He’s a former actor, who starred in national TV commercials, who left acting behind to attend the USC Marshall School of Business, and has been working as an emergency management entrepreneur since he graduated.

Founded: 2013

Funding: The company is not currently disclosing funding details.

What I like about them: I live in Southern California and know first-hand that there is no established early warning system for earthquakes. When I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania, my town had installed tornado sirens. When the region was hit by a series of F3-F5 tornadoes in the late 80s, those sirens could have saved numerous lives. The tornadoes ended up missing the town, barely, but the lesson was obvious: every second counts.

With earthquakes, there really is no wide-area Earthquake Early Warning system in the United States.

Early Warning Labs goal is to commercialize early earthquake warnings in order to reduce deaths, injuries, and property damage by delivering actionable alerts to both commercial entities and consumers.

The current system pulls in data from Cal-Tech, UC-Berkeley, and the USGS.

Early Warning Labs is also developing a mobile app, Quakealert, which will not only warn users of a coming earthquake, but which will also ask users questions that can help researchers understand the aftereffects of a quake.

Competitive Landscape: This is a niche market with no direct competition, as far as I can tell. Seismic Warning Systems offers warnings via on-site sensors, but its solution is site-specific and does not deliver a “wide area” warning.

Startup: Valarm

What they do: Provide sensor and monitoring solutions.

Headquarters: Los Angeles, CAValarmlogo_bigger

CEO: Valarm was co-founded by two brothers: Lorenzo Gonzalez and Edward Pultar, Ph.D.

Lorenzo has been developing large systems software since 1995 and has built major software solutions for Ford Motor Company, DaimlerChrysler, IBM, Qualcomm, R.L. Polk, ADP, Blockbuster, ESPN, and Yokohama Tire among others. His recent positions include CTO, Software Architect, and Director of Technology.

Edward received his Ph.D. in Geography from UC-Santa Barbara. During his program, he was awarded the Jack and Laura Dangermond GIS Fellowship. He has served as a faculty member in the Spatial Sciences Institute at University of Southern California, and served an internship with Google, where he worked on Google Earth.

Founded: 2012

Funding: Self-funded.

What I like about them: In our increasingly connected world, there are a ton of things to monitor, but few centralized ways to do so. Businesses, governments, and individual researchers need to monitor everything from soil conditions in vineyards, air quality around factories, vehicle traffic patterns, mines, farms, crocodile eggs, and pretty much whatever you can imagine.

However, most of that monitoring is still labor-intensive and time-consuming.

Valarm offers a solution that facilitates rapid deployment of real-time, geotagged mobile sensor networks. The Valarm Tools Cloud server makes it easy for you to map, graph, analyze, export, or forward your sensor data for applications like remote environmental monitoring, mobile data acquisition, and asset or vehicle tracking.

Customers include Scheid Vineyards, Barrick Gold, and Southern Light.

Key differentiator: Valarm argues that its solution is rapidly deployable and provides real-time, geotagged, and time-stamped mobile sensor data, which is rarely available at an affordable price.

Competitive Landscape: Competitors include Ranch Systems, OSIsoft, and HOBO.