Building a Macroscope for a More Transparent World

For thousands of years, space has fascinated humankind with its infinite size and boundless possibilities. The night sky alone is a visual feast, inspiring generations to trace patterns in star configurations, to speculate on the mysteries contained in the shadows and crevices of the moon. We use satellites and space ships to explore the depths of space, and we have long yearned to plumb its outer reaches for new knowledge that will also teach us something more about ourselves.

It’s time to turn that curiosity inside out and use our technical advances to better understand our own world. Despite all the information we can access with unprecedented ease, there’s still a lot we don’t know. We see pictures of rainforests being burned down and wonder if they show isolated events or prove large-scale global deforestation. We can’t find a place to park at the mall and wonder whether the economy is improving or if it’s just a big sale. We see gas prices rise and fall, often dramatically, but no one actually has up-to-date knowledge of the global supply of crude oil. The summer rains don’t fall, in Illinois or sub-saharan Africa, and we continue to be caught by surprise when shortages ensue and commodity prices surge. These and other market events should be easier for us to understand, anticipate, and plan for.

Orbital Insight is working on creating an important new way to understand the world. We apply machine learning technology to satellite imagery at a global scale, creating a new source of knowledge about our changing planet. We like to say we’re building a “macroscope” — a system that looks at the big picture and extracts useful insights, creating an unprecedented level of transparency that can help us make better decisions.

Today, we’re announcing $8.7 million in Series A funding from Sequoia Capital, Bloomberg Beta, Google Ventures and Lux Capital to help us build that macroscope. We’re excited that these leading investors believe in our technology and our mission, and we look forward to working with them to create a new era of transparency. The intersection of several market forces — exciting new sources of data in satellite and aerial imagery, remarkable advancements in machine learning, and increasingly affordable computing power — has enabled our work, and we anticipate that all of these trends will continue to accelerate.

The free market relies on the “invisible hand” to set prices and allocate resources. But markets can only work when information is available. More accurate and timely information allows prices to adjust more quickly and less dramatically. We imagine a world where it’s possible to anticipate crop shortages before they happen, be aware of real estate booms and busts, project sales accurately so retailers can plan appropriately, or even track deforestation rates and climate change without having boots on the ground. Our aim is to build this world, creating the transparency that will enable people to make better decisions on many different levels: in financial markets, in government, and ultimately for positive global change.

Machine learning offers us a clear path toward making these changes. In addition to creating novel technology, we’re also forming a strong team with diverse backgrounds, cultivating a community of transparency to we can work together to fix the problems we all face. Many of our team members hold PhDs or other advanced degrees and have left academia to focus on making advances in the real world at a fast pace, and we value their expertise and ability to sift through massive amounts of data for insights we can all use in our everyday lives.