DigitalGlobe’s founder on how satellites exposed a slave fishing operation and netted the AP a Pulitzer Prize

Walter-ScottA Better View of the World

When AP reporter Martha Mendoza asked DigitalGlobe whether the firm’s high-resolution satellite imagery could help the news agency identify fishing boats that relied on slave labor and shared their catch with large commercial fishing vessels, no one knew the answer. During rendezvous in the South Pacific Ocean with slave boats, the large ships often turned off their Automatic Identification System beacons that broadcast their position via satellite, making them hard to locate.

In July 2015, Mendoza gave DigitalGlobe map coordinates ofan 800-square-kilometer area near Papua New Guinea to search. Within 24 hours, DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-3 obtained a clear image of two slave boats tied to Silver Sea 2, a 2,300-ton refrigerated cargo ship, with its cargo hold open to receive the slave-caught seafood.

“DigitalGlobe provided the evidence, the smoking gun, with high-resolution imagery that was able to uniquely identify the fishing boats involved,” Walter Scott said April 27 at the Space 2.0 conference in Milpitas, California. “The net result was a series of arrests, unrolling a slaving operation, freeing 2,000 slaves and reuniting them with their families.”

The Associated Press won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its series of articles detailing the slavery-fueled fishing operations and the way the illicit seafood was being sold by major U.S. grocery chains and pet food companies.

Would you have been able to identify the slave boats without WorldView-3’s 31-centimeter resolution?

We would not have been able to uniquely identify the boats as the ones the enslaved fishermen described. We would not have been able to recognize the details.

DigitalGlobe won government approval in 2014 to offer satellite imagery with a resolution of 25 centimeters. What does a resolution of 25 centimeter offer as opposed to 50 centimeters?

Would you rather walk around with or without your glasses? Seeing things more clearly allows you to see a higher level of detail. That allows you to make decisions with more confidence.

What if the government set no restrictions on the resolution of imagery you could sell?

There are economic trade offs. With higher resolution, the cost of the system increases to the point where the technology for building the satellites starts to become uneconomic compared with other ways to get the same information. There may be other tools.

Like drones?

Drones are a great answer for higher resolution in one place at one time as opposed to satellites that are anywhere and everywhere. Satellites and drones can be used together to solve problems. A farmer might want to use a drone for crop monitoring. But the farmer needs years of satellite observations and crop performance data to build an algorithm. You can’t build that algorithm without the data to drive it.

How do atmospheric conditions affect your collections?

We’ve had to learn how to compensate and normalize data. Beijing air quality is terrible. There’s a haze over parts of Beijing that could make two identical buildings look different if one was in the haze and one wasn’t. We use technology to compensate, to show what the scene would look like if the air were clear.

Why is it hard to match up different types of imagery?

It seems obvious but it’s a lot harder than it looks. Different images are taken from different perspectives. Plus the Earth is not flat. It’s computationally hard to lay two images side by side or line up one on top of another.

How is your business changing?

The industry grew up around a problem we call “Show me there.” You can address that problem with images people can look at on a desktop computer. Now, the industry is focused on “Show me where.” Find all the airplanes or cars or trucks. That requires a scale far beyond anything you could conceive of doing on a desktop. It’s a planetary macroscope, bigger than anything the human brain can comprehend. You need machines and scale and crowds.

Top photo shows two slave boats tied to Silver Sea 2, a roughly 2,300-ton refrigerated cargo ship, with its cargo hold open to receive the slave-caught seafood. Bottom photo shows the analysis of the same photo. Credit: DigitalGlobe

Top photo shows two slave boats tied to Silver Sea 2, a roughly 2,300-ton refrigerated cargo ship, with its cargo hold open to receive the slave-caught seafood. Bottom photo shows the analysis of the same photo. Credit: DigitalGlobe

How do crowds help?

We use crowds of people to train the machines and curate the results. If you ask 10 people to tag a bus in an image, you develop a consensus. Then you identify the people who are most reliable and find out what they can reliably identify. A crowd of 8 million logged on to help look for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370.

Department licenses. Any comment?

Setting any kind of hard line on technology inevitably results in regulations lagging behind the technology by decades.

Last year, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency published its Commercial GEOINT Strategy, which signaled the agency’s interest in new data sources. What impact is that having on your business?

We see a growing set of highly complementary datasets becoming available. Not just satellite technology, but geotagged social media, tweets, RSS feeds.

Do small imaging satellites pose any threat to your business?

There is nothing in the small satellite realm that is remotely competitive. But it’s great to combine imagery from different platforms. For example, we formed a partnership with two Saudi Arabian companies, KACST [King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology] and Taqnia Space, to develop small satellites with 80-centimeter resolution imagery and the ability ultimately to revisit an area of interest 40 times per day.

What percentage of your business is devoted to federal government customers?

In 2015, it was 63 percent. Anyone with a U.S. government email address has access to DigitalGlobe’s high-resolution imagery, including the “Daily Take”. The “Daily Take” is everything captured during the day. It is generally available within 2.5 hours and can be delivered in as little as 12 minutes. That means if you think of something you want to know in the geospatial realm, the answer is not irrelevant by the time you get it. And it comes with the fidelity to act on it. (U.S. government officials can access DigitalGlobe’s daily haul of high-resolution imagery by signing up with their U.S. government email addresses at

Is your satellite analytics business growing?

Yes. We are serving industries that don’t know imagery from a hole in the wall, but we are helping them make decisions with confidence.

Should the government continue to build Landsat moderate-resolution imaging satellites?

There’s no reason the government has to do that. If the government wants to acquire a capability and make it freely available, they can build it or ask someone else to build it. But we make money collecting imagery once and licensing it multiple times to different customers. The government pays less for DigitalGlobe WorldView imagery because it does not bear 100 percent of the cost. If the government wants to freely disseminate our products, it would cost the government more than buying a product that we can sell to other customers.

Walter Scott’s Big Break

Walter Scott was playing paintball in 1992 when he broke his foot. That accident, which occurred two weeks before his wedding and the day after his bachelor party, gave him time to write a business plan that he had been thinking about for a while. The result: WorldView Imaging Corp., which later became DigitalGlobe.