Geography · Economics · Visualization

Bracing For The Satellite Pixel Glut of 2023

It’s a question as old as capitalism itself: does Supply create its own Demand?

With Serious Money flooding the Earth Observation sector–Billionaire money, Former Treasury Secretary/ Wall Street money, etc.–the industry is SPAC’d up and hurling satellites and sensors (optical, radar, hyperspectral, you name it) into orbit at a dizzying rate.

But what if the engineering virtuosity required to successfully launch a satellite and successfully collect sensor data is not the most difficult problem to be solved? What if finding product-market fit for the resolution/sensor-type/temporal-cadence of your pixels is the greater challenge? What if with every successful launch and funding round it’s becoming a little more obvious that Earth Observation’s challenge isn’t Supply, it’s Demand?

Because while the Customer of First Resort–Big Government (specifically the defense and intel sectors)–is happy to do its part and even nurture new entrants by spreading its bets, it can’t support everyone’s heady revenue projections based on the premium incumbent pricing of the past. Recent entrants speak optimistically about segments such as Agriculture, Insurance, et cetera and imply an impressively diversified revenue base. To those of us who have watched the big incumbents (Maxar and Airbus) try and grow a variety of verticals over the past two decades with modest results, projections of ravenous commercial growth over, say, the next five years seem a little too frothy.

None of which would be particularly interesting if it wasn’t for the proclivity of Hot Money to head for the exits at the merest whiff of less-than-outsized returns. Everyone says the right things about Space being “a long term play” yet the sell-offs in the wake of a quarterly earnings announcement tell a familiar short-term story.

That the successful launching of faster/better/cheaper earth observation satellites is now regarded as commonplace is a massive engineering achievement justly celebrated. But that very success has spawned a whole different set of formidable challenges: somehow jump-starting real, tangible commercial demand that will satisfy the aggressive expectations of capital markets. Maybe there’s a megatrend that will arrive just in time–climate action, catch-all ESG initiatives, or who knows, the hasty construction of Metaverses(!) What’s for certain though is that Supply is not waiting on Demand.

And a reckoning is coming sooner, not later.


— Brian Timoney 



The Shadow of Time photo courtesy of  Carlos Borroni‘s Flickr account

The Travelling Salesman Problem Is Not a Routing Problem, It’s A Monetization Problem

Creative destruction is awesome until it comes for your livelihood.


Having made a few dollars over the years building custom routing applications, I had two distinct reactions when testing out the Straightaway app recently after reading this Mapbox post.

“this is way cool and efficient” 😀

“time to look for another way to make money solving geospatial problems” 🙁

Of course routing has been firmly on the path of commodification since at least the Mapquest days in the late 1990s.  When Google Maps came along with dynamic re-routing in the browser I was so delighted and befuddled I had to ask Brian Flood to explain to me (slowly) how this magic was happening.


The app’s pitch  is to optimize multi-stop delivery routes—the freemium version lets you route up to 25 stops, with some near real-time traffic awareness, and get an ordered set of stops with precise time estimates.  But the real user-experience win is the OCR address detection of your list of stops using your phone camera!  I printed out a list of 18 addresses spread around Denver and in a minute I had my detailed route.


 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

What’s been the most valuable innovation in routing?

Hands down: turn-by-turn voice directions.

Without turn-by-turn voice directions, there is no multi-billion dollar gig economy of ridesharing and delivery because you would never have a critical mass of drivers if traditional map-reading skills were required (let alone their  brute-force memorization a la “the Knowledge”).  As geography enthusiasts, we wish that weren’t the case, but the World isn’t what it Ought to be (in so many ways).

Perhaps that’s the real lesson we should take away from a cool app that disrupts our Income Streams:  spend more time thinking about UI/UX form factors that empower a broader audience rather than simply focusing on the geospatial wizardry that impresses our small in-group.


— Brian Timoney 



Google Knew We Didn’t Want to Kill Spreadsheets. We Wanted A Billion Rows.

Study after study shows the negative health impacts of soda.  And 7-11 has responded to market demand with a 128oz Mega Gulp.

For as fashionable as it is in the data community to feign exasperation with spreadsheets and the chaos they cause — mangling numbers and text, crimes against dates and times, relative vs absolute cell references, etc. — Google saw into our hearts and has granted our deepest unspoken wish.

The billion-row spreadsheet.

Actually, it’s wiring up Google Sheets to BigQuery tables so the data doesn’t live in your spreadsheet per se (one good measure of disaster prevention!) but you can manipulate and analyze in a Google Sheet using standard tools e.g. pivot tables.  As Ben Collins noted, the real win is doing work using these familiar spreadsheeting methods instead of writing SQL queries.  Which is true, because SQL is a chokepoint.

“But everyone who works with data should learn SQL.”

And more Americans should learn a foreign language.

When asked how an adult may go about learning a foreign language, the linguist John McWhorter memorably replied “It’s hard. Sleep with somebody, frankly.”  And while readers of this blog skew towards passionate lovers of data, willing to harness SQL for all manner of subqueries and cross lateral joins, the audience of those who merely want to shake hands with their data and answer a couple of questions is much larger.

Audience size and uptake–the key metrics we dismiss too easily.  The spreadsheet is the signal achievement of the PC era and a three-decades track record of being the backbone of quantitative work.  As any UI/UX pro knows, having millions of users willingly engage with an interface and its visual vernacular is very, very difficult.  Despite its drawbacks, the spreadsheet is entrenched for good reasons and for the most part Familiarity Breeds Productivity.

Let’s warmly welcome the Billion Row Spreadsheet as another step forward in the democratization of quantitative analysis.


— Brian Timoney 


Panama Canal photo courtesy of  Helen@littlethorpe ‘s Flickr account