Interviews knowco Start-up stories

Hans van ‘t Woud about Entrepreneurship “How a crowdsourcing platform turns Satellite Imagery into Maps to better understand Disasters”

Hans van ‘t Woud
Founding director at BlackShore
Mentor at Copernicus Accelerator

ABOUT BlackShore
You are working at Blackshore, you have built the platform called Cerberus, an automated processing engine that translates any type of photographic satellite data into usable GIS data using the power of the crowd. Where is the idea coming from?
“It’s from planet Mars😊”, Ok, on a serious note, the first version of Cerberus I created to help NASA researchers map the surface of Mars, based on data collected by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

This satellite captures Mars’s surface allowing us to zoom in up to 25 centimetres generating tons of images to be analysed. With this comes a challenge, since there are not enough researchers to turn this data into knowledge. The first version of Cerberus helped with this, by allowing people in a game to look at the beautiful images. While learning, experiencing and having a good time people started to help create a geographical atlas of Mars’s surface. Our little brother planet is so similar like Earth with so many interesting places to explore, making it possible to bridge my technology.

What was your starting goal for Cerberus ?
My starting goal was to solve problems science was facing by enabling the brains of the many to contribute to important goals. Also it was the self-created research topic to finish my Master’s degree in computer science in the direction Human Centered Multimedia at the University of Amsterdam.

Can you share where it is used for now ? and share some of the success stories you are most proud of?
Nowadays we use Cerberus to help solve problems back here on Earth. Around our own planet we have many more satellites orbiting, helping to understand climate change, map humanitarian crisises or to support farmers in developing countries for example. Using intelligent maps for instance we can make farmers more smart about their lands taking away the need to cut down rain forests

All projects we do make my equally proud, but two of them are of specific value to me.

The first large scale campaign involved the mapping of damage caused by hurricane Haiyan on the Philippines a few years ago. In Cerberus, we inserted storm damage imagery and we asked the crowd to help map damaged houses, broken powerlines, flooded area’s and so on. While mapping the crowd was generating a disaster assessment map which could be used by help services to better understand the situation and thus to plan their efforts more efficiently. The interesting thing is, that after a disasters happen, we have satellites there almost immediately so the crowd can start mapping within hours to generate results at an instant. Hence, while help troops are on their way, the mapping already has commenced.

Another project which is really close to my heart was finding Yezidi refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar since they were chased out of their homes under threat of ISIS. Within 12 hours we were able to locate them sitting somewhere high on the mountain at the side of a dried up river bed, just waiting. Knowing their location allows us for example to drop supplies on the right location, plan evacuation routes and on a very serious note tell the world the truth of events creating our future’s history.

What are the main challenges you faced as a start-up to start selling Cerberus successfully within your market?
While Cerberus outperforms experts in mapping speed, capacity and matches quality it has proven to be a valuable tool to be used related to quite an array of situations important to work on in this world. In addition, with the communicative value by enganging the public to what matters you would think it is a perfect combination, not even to mention the crowdfunding elements we are planning on. Unfortunately however, numerous organizations telling to the world they want to innovate, in which Cerberus could be an invaluable tool, in the end are sluggish to start doing things differently or try new things. Hence Cerberus’s biggest competitor is the status quo. It just does not always matter if you do things better or different, organizations often lack the versatility to adapt quickly to real world demands, even more when it is about unplanned campaigns such as disasters or wars. For this it has taken me a very long time for Cerberus to get track, but we are getting there meaning the world is taking up.

Especially in the world of modern data driven NGOs, the corporate social responsible companies and organizations such as the European Space Agency are open minded by helping Cerberus to become a success.

You are located at the SBIC which is the incubator for start-ups that use space technology for terrestrial applications. How did you get to know SBIC and how are they supporting you ?
Originally I got in contact with the European Space Agency because I wanted to work there bringing with my Mars mapping technology with me. Very fast however, ESA helped me to discover the Space Business Incubator programme to take up my self-developed ‘space’ technology and to turn it into something good and meaning for our own planet. It all has been about 8 years ago already, and at the time I had no aspiration to start up my own business, however the ESA stimulated ‘entrepreneurial’ tide brought me where I am now having a very interesting life!

ABOUT YOUR LIFE

How did you get into the space industry with Cerberus ?
During my Masters at the University of Amsterdam, and on the lookout for a research topic I suddenly just stumbled into some of those amazing Mars Images and a NASA challenge, which got me thinking… the rest is history.

How do you see the future of space technology ? and the impact on our daily lifes
Well, I am one of the examples bringing those research euros back to earth by solving nowadays problems. Some people think investment in space is only being used to send dogs and cats into space, but it is just so much more. Not only it helps us to understand the universe, it simultaneously helps us to create interesting technologies making life here on earth better and greener. Think for example about solar panels, which are invented to power satellites. All panels nowadays driving the energy grids are one of numerous examples to justify space investment, since they give us double value. Hence, these developments will, and should continue in the near future so we can face the challenges which are coming up. So, impact will rise for the greater good, and we must cherish this!

What is your goal in life coming 5 to 10 years?
Entrepreneurial wise, I am living an adventure, and I honestly never work with long term goals and just act on opportunities taking up my interest. Of course in about 5 years I am hoping to work with a crowd of a few million people, so we can generate a powerful positive impact on our planet, but yes… as for personal I just hope my children will be healthy and just as wondering about our planet as their mom is, valuing what is out here and wanting to make it better.. ..as for me this would be enough I think, and who knows what transformations there might be.

How do you keep a good work life balance with your work and family life?
I find the time I can spend with my children, and the time to have free space so paramount important that I have to keep this in mind while running my company. Of course there are evenings and weekends to work, but I try to keep these at a minimum and I always make up to it by taking my family to the forest at random afternoons and eat pancakes. For the rest as a company I decided for an organic, self-controlled and slower growth, instead of pursuing venture capital making those big leaps. For me, when it is about large investments, and I see it around me, it goes at a cost far greater than what capital involves. In addition, I have seen quite some companies come and go, while I am still here.

Books recommended by Hans van ‘t Woud:

If you want to learn more about BlackShore visit them on https://www.blackshore.eu/.

You can read his Golden Rules for Living, here. And his Podcast about How to create an Atlas for Planet Mars, here.

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