When the image first appeared, it was as puzzling as it was striking. Geometric shapes in bright pink and green command attention with bold lines framing the frame. The forms are clustered together, but there is no focal point. It could almost be modern art—perhaps a Mondrian if he’d been more caffeinated around neon paint.
But this is not cubism; This is cartography.
“We’re over Italy,” says Brandon Palin with the authority of a knowledgeable tour guide. “You can tell by the structure of the buildings and the way the streets are.” We’re looking at an aerial view of a small town displayed on a giant television screen in a downtown Toronto office. The neon-glowing colors result from a digital overlay that obscures most of the picture. It takes a moment to get used to, but then it becomes clear that every building, road, bridge, waterway, piece of vegetation, and countless other features have been carefully highlighted.
According to Palin, the somewhat haphazard arrangement of the houses is one of the signs that we are in Southern Europe. And he should know—he’s a senior director Ecopia AI, a Toronto tech company that’s putting Canada on the, well…maps. One of the co-founder’s research projects at the University of Waterloo in 2013, the company specializes in using artificial intelligence to create ultra-precise digital charts from high-resolution satellite, aerial and street-view photography. Its technology is now deployed in over 100 countries and its applications are endless. It’s being used by urban planners in Italy, 911 dispatchers in Florida, and last year the company won a multimillion-dollar contract with the US government to help prepare for climate change.
With the touch of a button, Palin takes us to a Seattle suburb to test how much shade a tree canopy provides. Then we move on to Jacksonville, where the previously top-down map becomes three-dimensional. The view belongs to the next generation of Ecopia’s technology, and the detail is impressive. The exterior shapes of the houses are rendered with such precision that you can pick out the quaint dormer roof windows beloved by suburban developers. The software can also determine what material the roof is made of and assess its condition.
The capabilities of this technology are vast. This world has been captured, digitized and ready to be explored.
navigating the future
Climate change is intensifying the need for highly accurate maps. As sea levels rise and natural disasters increase, governments, city planners and insurers need to predict the impact they will have as well as what solutions can help reduce trauma. Google Maps, the most high-profile player in the US$20 billion digital mapping industry, is fine for getting from A to B and avoiding traffic along the way. But it can’t easily tell you which roofs might be suitable for solar panels or whether a piece of vacant land is bare soil, vegetated or paved. they can be key data If you’re trying to plan for more clean energy infrastructure or trying to determine where rainwater will end up in a heavy storm.
Ecopia’s co-founder and president, John Lipinski, says the company is on a mission to create a virtual replica, or digital twin in tech-speak, of the entire planet that “reflects every detail of the real world and as it happens.” , Changes. .”
That last part is important. A warming climate and rapidly growing urban areas are causing rapid changes in the environment. Palin points to communities in Florida that are becoming more vulnerable to flooding as mangroves, which once protected them by absorbing winds and storm surges, are cut down for development. “The infrastructure was designed back when the mangroves were still there,” he says. These days, map makers and planners have to run to stand still.
When high-resolution photography became widely available in the 1990s, extracting map information was a laborious task. Cartographers would manually or systematically check the outlines of structures and correct the work of some hit-or-miss computer systems. The rise of artificial intelligence and increased computing power over the past decade has enabled mapping companies to automate this process, reducing work that used to take weeks or months. Lipinski says the company’s secret sauce is its algorithms, which enable it to extract large amounts of information quickly and accurately, while also keeping file sizes down to levels that its users’ laptops can’t handle. Will melt That speed also means it can rapidly update its maps when new imagery becomes available.
Ecopia’s technology has enabled it to achieve some remarkable achievements. It was the first company to chart every building in the United States and created the most comprehensive map of sub-Saharan Africa. And it has pushed its technology to unprecedented detail in mapping vegetation such as trees, forests and grasslands.
That work has attracted attention. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently awarded the company a $10 million contract to provide maps to support its climate resilience plan, and Ecopia is now the go-to source for state and municipal governments from Illinois to Los Angeles. One of the companies.
Here in Canada, the city of Peterborough is using Ecopia’s data in its stormwater model, aiming to prevent a repeat of the 2004 floods that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. Traditionally, hydrologists had to rely on rough estimates of how much rain different surfaces could absorb. Ecopia’s technology allows planners to do this by accurately identifying non-porous surfaces such as roads and roofs and determining whether they are connected to a city’s sewer system. The federal government has also contracted Ecopia to help plan broadband expansion, as well as create detailed maps of Canada’s 100 largest cities to support zero-net efforts such as transit improvements.
Ecopia’s wide range of activities reflects the fact that AI-generated maps are now the basis for a large amount of planning work. “If you request a home insurance quote, call a 5G network, or rely on a stormwater drainage system, all of those things have a basis in map technology,” says Lipinski.
In this way, AI cartographers carry on a tradition of mapmaking that shapes our world as much as it represents it. Maps have always given priority to some elements over others—the Romans placed the Mediterranean at the center of the world, while depictions such as launch of peter Designed to counter the gross over-exaggeration of northern hemisphere countries on most modern maps. By emphasizing the need for expansion and constant updating, AI-generated charts gradually take maps beyond their origins as static depictions of the developed world. They are now dynamic tools to help us respond to an increasingly complex and rapidly changing planet.
“Maps are fundamental to understanding change,” Palin says. “Effectively, these data sets are the foundation of innovation.”