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Asking the Earth.


IT HAS been 18 years since Google Earth was launched and we have become used to seeing beautiful satellite photographs.
Although these images may be sharp, they are generally past their sell-by date. Google Earth imagery of any given place could be three or four years old.
Now a series of space firms is springing up with the aim of providing images of the planet that are updated in real time.
Foremost among them is Planet, which held a conference a few weeks ago to explore what its technology can do.
The firm’s ambitions go further than pictures. It plans to create an interface through which users can ask questions about the entire planet. They call it “queryable Earth”. Think of it like a search engine not for the internet, but for the surface of our world. There are good reasons that such a thing might be useful. Imagine you are a stock trader and want to know how a retail business is doing. You could read the newspapers or dig into financial reports. But it turns out that you could get a useful insight if you ask how many vehicles are in the business’s car parks.
This idea has been around for a while. Connecticut-based firm RS Metrics was founded in 2011 and began by using click counters to tot up the number of cars in parking lots on satellite pictures.
This information is sold to investors, to provide an up-to-the-minute hint at how well the company is trading.The approach seems to work. A recent analysis by Panos Patatoukas at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues looked at 4.7 million RS Metrics observations of about 67,000 shops across the US between 2011 and 2017.
The team found that the number of cars parked next to a company’s stores accurately predicted the short-term performance of its shares in the weeks leading up to quarterly earnings reports.
The team also looked at how a trader would have fared if they had bought stocks in retailers when parking figures spiked abnormally and sold them when the figures went down. They found the return would have been 4.7 per cent higher than a benchmark trading strategy – a huge margin. RS Metrics buys images
to analyse from other firms, but Planet has launched about 350 of its own satellites.
Only about 140 are still in orbit, because they eventually burn up in the atmosphere. This includes a fleet that images the entire surface of Earth every day at a maximum resolution of about 3 metres.

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