Mapping the globe and creating a better world
From disaster response and recovery to vaccine delivery, two Waterloo alumni are harnessing AI for social good
From disaster response and recovery to vaccine delivery, two Waterloo alumni are harnessing AI for social goodBy Etta Di Leo University Relations
University of Waterloo alumni Yuanming Shu (MSc ’10, PhD ’15) and Shuo Tan (MSc ’10) are changing how we map the world — by capturing more detail quickly and at less cost. They’ve co-founded Ecopia AI (Ecopia) with a vision to use artificial intelligence (AI) to digitize and label everything — every detail on Earth — and then have it constantly update in real-time.
“We want to capture as much detail of the physical world as possible so companies, humanitarian organizations, governments and citizens can better understand and interact with their environment,” Shu says. “If Google Maps is the first generation of digital mapping, we are creating the second generation.”
Ecopia’s mapping technology uses data from satellites, mobile phones, drones and air imaging sensors. The information-rich picture of our world can be used by governments and industry to better plan and power applications such as smart cities, real estate, insurance, autonomous driving, and augmented reality.
While Ecopia has been creating 2D maps for the past few years, the team recently advanced their AI-based systems to create and update 3D maps at a continental scale.
“Traditionally, creating and maintaining large 3D maps was extremely expensive, which limits the number of applications,” Tan says. “With this advancement, Ecopia is able to significantly reduce the cost and enable the massive adoption of 3D maps across many applications.”
Ecopia’s technology is perfectly suited to help organizations build for a future where data and information empowers us to make better decisions. Ecopia provides maps that help inform our social landscape to best provide services such as vaccines and clean energy to developing countries that have been left off of out-of-date traditional maps.
“With accessible, up-to-date data, end users can accelerate decision making to enable a more significant impact on a local, regional, or national level,” Shu says. “A few examples of how the digital maps are being used include disaster preparedness, response and recovery, vaccine delivery, malaria elimination and health surveillance and informing field operations.”
Ecopia has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and Maxar Technologies to create comprehensive digital maps of sub-Saharan Africa. The image collection, which began in late 2019, has mapped 417 million buildings, 17 million linear kilometers of roads and 582 hectares of forests across 51 countries.
This mapping has helped empower Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the worlds largest humanitarian organization to give Tanzania’s government critical life-saving data they need for vaccine distribution, population mapping and disaster response.
The company is now focused on updating the digital maps for all 51 African countries and the project is set to launch officially in 2021.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for Ecopia, it has also allowed the company and its founders to think differently.
“The pandemic taught us to think outside the box,” says Tan. “It has allowed our teams to refocus internal resources around new product development and existing product refinement. We’ve also been creative around how we attract new customers.”
The company has also managed to grow despite the challenges and has been named as a recipient of the Deloitte Fast 50 and the Deloitte Fast 500 for the last two years in a row.
“We were really surprised by how much a small team can do with AI,” Shu says. “We are a 40-person company. We’ve never raised capital, and we grew our business organically. However, our team has mapped over 40 million square kilometers of land across more than 100 countries. With the further advancement of AI, I think it will become a trend to see more and more small teams do big things with AI.”
The company has ambitious plans for international expansion and continued market growth. Over the past year, Shu and Tan have seen the need for increased global connectivity. They see digital maps enabling that connectivity.
“We’re constantly finding new applications for international expansion,” Shu says. “We’re very uniquely positioned to lead the market and are actively hiring to expand the team and execute on our mission to digitize the world using AI.”
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is co-ordinated within the Office of Indigenous Relations.