Yuliya Panfil
Associate, Investments

Why We Invested: Radiant

April 13, 2017

On a windy day in late February, one hundred experts in the fields of remote sensing, geospatial analytics, artificial intelligence, satellite imagery, international development and philanthropy packed into a conference hall inside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s sprawling campus in Seattle, Washington.

They were there for the launch of Radiant, a platform we co-funded with the Gates Foundation to provide the world with free, open access to geospatial data.

On stage, an explorer told the story of how he had crowdsourced the location of Genghis Khan’s lost tomb in Mongolia, using a combination of detailed imagery and the power of human volunteers. A think tank researcher described using remote sensing to cut through the Amazon Rainforest canopy and see — for the first time ever — the secret world that lay under the tree covers. An Amazon executive flashed a graph showing the explosion in use of imagery that was placed on an Amazon cloud. “Open data is happy data,” he quipped.

Forget Christopher Columbus, and forget Sputnik: the time for human exploration is now. Rapid advances in remote sensing and satellite imagery have put the entire world at our fingertips, at sub-meter resolution. With the click of a button, we can see sand castles at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, icicles glinting on the top of Mount Everest, and forgotten populations deep in the Sahara Desert.

It’s enough to make your head spin with possibilities for good: spotting human trafficking from the sky; tackling deforestation; optimizing transportation networks; updating outdated population maps; tracking Ebola outbreaks…

But the reality is the world’s vast trove of high-resolution imagery cannot be deployed in this way. The data sets are expensive, fragmented, and difficult to access and use by those who aren’t geospatial experts.

That is precisely why we decided to invest in Radiant.

Radiant is a platform that seeks to gather all the world’s geospatial data, and to teach people how to use it. Put differently: it seeks to democratize imagery. It wants to align and connect the world’s vast trove of both commercial and public imagery and to make it easy to explore and consume, for free.

Satellite imagery offers a powerful resource for transparency, accountability and fact-based advocacy. A critical component of Radiant is that it will empower users — not just GIS experts, but also humanitarian groups, journalists, policy-makers, activists, and others — to deploy this resource. Radiant will also mobilize a diverse community of stakeholders — from commercial imagery providers to mappers and drone operators — willing and able to engage with these users.

The information Radiant provides is particularly powerful in the field of land and property rights, where a lack of transparent and accessible geospatial data gets in the way of land titling efforts, and leads to conflicts and land grabbing. The more people have access to the information Radiant offers, the more we can accurately map, secure and protect people’s land rights.

In a world where data is the new oil, we feel that making high quality data available for everyone to use — and teaching them how to mine it to answer their most pressing questions — can empower individuals and provide them with opportunities to improve their lives.

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