GeoSmart is a Newspace company in Africa, offering geospatial services. GeoSmart describes itself as finding solutions to geographical problems by combining out-of-the-box geospatial thinking with cutting-edge technologies, such as geographical information systems (GIS), earth observation satellites, global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), mobile devices, cloud computing and artificial intelligence.
As part of our 2020 in Review interview series, Space in Africa spoke to Ockert Malan, the Chief Technology Officer of GeoSmart Space, and we discussed the achievements of the company during the year, and their plans for the industry in coming years.
Despite the challenges experienced across different sectors, this is an excellent year for Geographic Information System (GIS). What has the GeoSmart experience been in 2020?
2020 had its ups and downs. We have certainly lost business due to the recent economic downturn, but we have also had new opportunities present themselves as organisations have realised the value that GIS and remote sensing can offer. Take, for example, site-planners who have been unable to travel to locations – we have been able to make sure they can carry on with their work. We are also proud to provide support to the renewable energy sector in South Africa, which is rapidly growing despite the economic turmoil.
Geosmart’s partnership with the Centre for Geographical Analysis is an important one towards advancing GIS research. How did this partnership aid GeoSmart this year?
Our partnership with the CGA is critical to our operations at GeoSmart. Through it, we are able to remain current on cutting edge research being done in the field of geospatial science at the CGA and Stellenbosch University. It enables us to very much punch above our weight in terms of the products and services we can offer. It is, however very much a symbiotic relationship, and we are proud of the data support we can provide to the CGA as well as students at Stellenbosch University, and other academic institutions.
Would you say that GeoSmart was prepared and possibly built for conditions like the one in 2020, or did you struggle to adapt like other companies?
Although we did not plan for what ended up happening this year, our organisation was perfectly suited to adapt to what has become the new norm. We never had a centralised office, so our staff were already used to working independently, and the nature of our work made it very easy to shift our processes to the home. We were also lucky in that our organisation and staff already had all of the required hardware at hand to be able to work from home.
What would you say is the highlight of GeoSmart’s development in 2020?
The highlight of 2020 was the hiring of our Chief Technology Officer. A risk was taken to appoint a young professional straight out of University with the hope that it would bring dynamic, youthful energy to the organisation – and it paid off. Although there were some challenges to overcome with the inexperience of the candidate, as well as starting a professional career in 2020, we feel that our CTO’s enthusiasm, adaptability and creative problem-solving more than made up for it.
Between October and now, GeoSmart has launched new services like Viewshed Analysis and Flood Hazard Index, can you talk about these services and the projections GeoSmart has for their use?
Our viewshed analysis product aims to address an emerging need brought on by the fourth industrial revolution. Connectivity is the foundation for any smart system installation – you cannot have an internet of things without the internet. Take, for example, a farmer looking to put up a signal tower to provide wireless network coverage across their farm.
Instead of having to go out and test various locations for signal coverage, they could provide us with the coordinates of where they would want a tower to go up. We can use our DEMSA2 product to model the coverage from that point, which we can then provide to the farmer as a GIS dataset, a pdf that can be printed out, or even as a web-map viewed from a smartphone.
Our Flood Hazard Index provides an accurate, detailed, yet simple indication of the flood risk anywhere in South Africa (and beyond) that can be produced on demand. Our primary use case for the product is for disaster risk management and planning, but it may also be of use to insurance companies who are looking to more accurately model potential damage risk. Again, this product is envisioned to be provided in a variety of formats, such that it can be useful to anyone in need of it, regardless of GIS literacy.
How has government regulations affected your operations?
We have mostly been unaffected by government regulations, save for some minor inconveniences and annoyances during our “hard lockdown”. We had a rather comical situation in March when we realised to our shock that some data were not on our storage server, but on an external hard drive in an office two blocks away, but entirely inaccessible due to the curfew that was in effect at the time.
Is GeoSmart going to maintain its current administrative structure used to pilot the lockdown stage, or are you looking to expand as soon as the lockdown phases are over?
It is unlikely that we will go back to our old way of doing things, save for maybe bringing back the occasional in-person meeting, because there is no substitute for face to face interaction.
Home offices are most likely going to be the setup for us, at least for the foreseeable future. As for expansion plans, we are currently considering hiring additional staff to expand capacity.
How were you able to navigate launching new services during the pandemic? Did you enjoy the usual reception as you used to?
We do not feel that the pandemic had any impact on our product launches, as we did not have the capacity to attend many conferences or expos. We did, however, see the pandemic as an opportunity, and as such, we decided to expand our online presence by starting a blog and increasing our social media footprint. The idea was to increase awareness of our company by putting content out there for everyone bored at home to come across, and it worked.
What would you describe as the essential things for GeoSmart, going into 2021?
We want to sustain and expand on the momentum 2020 has given to the geospatial industry. There are many new clients out there who were forced to turn to GIS for solutions due to the restrictions placed on them this year. We have shown them that GIS offers an alternative to traditional methods, now it is time to show them why GIS can be better than those methods.
What projects should the industry expect from GeoSmart?
In 2021 we would love to take GeoSmart out of the GIS bubble. We have a wonderful existing client base, and naturally, we will continue to provide for them. However, they are mostly fellow GIS specialists, and although we are growing in number, there are still not all that many of us out there. Along the lines of our viewshed product, we want to continue to find new ways to offer solutions to those outside of our field and find ways that we can apply our knowledge to help them.