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Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications
Role and potential of the National Broadband Network

YOUNG, Mr Adrian, Director of Sales, NearMap Pty Ltd


CHAIR: Thank you for coming in. I welcome the representative of NearMap to today's hearing. The committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, but I should advise that the hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. We do not have a written submission, but I do understand you have a visual presentation. Given we are being broadcast you might want to describe it as you are working our way through. Thank you, Adrian.

Mr Young : Thank you very much, Chair, and thank you for the opportunity, particularly on the technology side. We are a very visual company with a very visual product, so it is much easier to actually walk you through it than to talk you through it, but for the benefit of Hansard I will try to do both at the same time.

An audiovisual presentation was then given—

I want to give you a brief introduction of what we do, why we are different and why the NBN is a big issue for us. This is really just a five to 10 minute skim through that and then we can open up to questions after that. is a high-resolution aerial photo mapping and terrain mapping technology. It is quite a mouthful. Essentially what we have is a technology that provides the world's clearest and most up-to-date photo maps. We have a program of regular capture around Australia, where we fly five capital cities every month and about 20 regional centres every quarter. We make all of that imagery available online in a time series archive on our website. In terms of how people access that, it is free for the community to use and most SMEs can use it for free as well. Our revenue is generated through government licensing and licensing the imagery too, essentially, large corporates. I guess what we bring to the table is that we enable people to see in detail what is on the ground now and how it is changing. This is a radically different capability to anything else in this industry. One of the things that makes it so radical is that it has broad application. Obviously, spatial information is used across a whole range of different sectors. Part of the limitation of the current aerial market is really three things: (1) it is all a bit blurry and grainy; (2) it is a snapshot; and (3) it is typically six to 12 months out of date by the time you see it. Because it takes so long to fly it and process it, it is out of date from day one. Because we have dealt with those three constraints, it has really broad application. So, currently, we have clients at all levels of government and across different commercial sectors using it for a whole range of different applications. Being able to see how the conditions on the ground are changing means that you can use it for things like planning infrastructure roll-outs and implementing those projects. You can use it to monitor change in the environment. Government agencies—local, state and federal—are using it to improve the way they deliver services to their stakeholders. It is used by local governments right across their business—environmental compliance, building regulations, customer service and strategic planning—right up to federal agencies. One of those agencies uses it to check whether the solar panel they have subsidised is actually on your roof or not.

Regulatory compliance is a big application for near map imagery, and that is from the enforcement side through to environmental compliance right through to building code compliance because of the detail you can see on the photo maps. Because of the clarity and the currency, it opens up that kind of application.

Emergency management is a really sweet spot for us, I guess. Because we can turn imagery around so quickly and capture in such detail, all of sudden emergency management and response has a use for this imagery, whereas in the past it was of fairly limited value. You probably noted in the inquiry into the Queensland floods the evidence given by chopper pilots who said that they were using their phone to navigate because the mapping was so out of date. I dare say that, if they had been using our content, they would not have had that problem.

With asset management, again, being able to see the condition of your assets across a very large area is something that is enabled with our product. And more and more it is being used in a research and educative capacity across both the environmental side and the spatial side. I have people from architecture faculties ringing me to say what a fantastic product it is. They use it in their lectures all the time. It really is a kind of engine for generating new knowledge because you can see things so clearly from a great distance.

Because of that broad application there is a program that we have been talking about with government for a little while now, and that is a proposal to photo map the whole country. This has never been done before using aerial technology basically because of the cost. To photo map the whole country at 10 centimetre resolution using conventional technology would cost you about $1½ billion. We have substantially changed the economics of doing this work. For us to capture the whole of Australia every year at 10 centimetre resolution and to capture the capital cities every month at 7½ centimetre resolution is a $75 million program. You can get an idea of the relativities in terms of how we have managed to change the way this work is done. The benefit is that it would be provided free to everybody: all businesses, all government—local, state and federal—and everyone in the community.

So, from our perspective, the NBN has quite a nice convergence with this kind of project, because what the NBN does is enable a whole lot of broad impacts across a whole range of sectors when this much data is being made available. We have had the economic impacts of that kind of proposal modelled independently by Allen Consulting Group. They did a whole lot of case study research and identified a range of sector applications based on this kind of information being made available: what could you do with it; what difference would it make to your business? I think this is really relevant to the kinds of discussions you are having here, which is: how is the NBN going to impact on SMEs and on government service delivery?

So their independent advice to us was that there are very broad impacts of being able to see everywhere in the country from your desktop in high detail. That adds value right across the economy. For example, in mining it is about exploration and about monitoring their operational capabilities and their impact on the environment, planning and monitoring construction, improving informed decision-making in government and bringing more efficiency to their operations. Another example is the marketing of SME products—being able to market property and real estate, or being able to market the tourism industry because everyone can see where your tourist business is based and the area that it is in. You can put that up online and someone on the other side of the world can see exactly what your business looks like and what the attractions of the area are. That has huge impact on the tourism industry. And it is so even down to fairly basic applications, like tradies being able to use it to quote for paving, for example, or installing solar panels, or doing work on home services type applications.

They were quite instructive around natural resource management in this report, on the ability to more effectively manage the natural resources that we have, make more informed decisions and have an evidence base. One of the key stumbling blocks in the great debate on climate change is: whose evidence is right? It is a bit hard to argue with a photo.

We are increasingly getting more and more interest from insurance companies, and obviously the Brisbane inquiries around the flooding have brought to light the absence of this national flood map. One of the really interesting implications of this project would be that it would establish a national flood map because our sensor captures the photographs and terrain data at the same time. So there are broad implications here. The impact that would have on the economy was assessed, as I said, by Allen Consulting Group. Their judgement was that, if this project went ahead, within three years you would be looking at a $5.4 billion boost to GDP and the creation of 4,200 new jobs. So this is a not insubstantial project with some fairly serious ramifications.

I guess we really see the NBN as enabling a lot of that to take place. We are a very high bandwidth, rich-content product and, even on our relatively fast ADSL 2+, it can still take quite a while to download the content. In terms of the impact of the NBN on our customers, in the community, in business and in government, our view is that access to bandwidth, the speed of that bandwidth and price are key.

In terms of how our customers would use our product in an NBN environment, we see huge applications, and I guess I have taken you through some of those already. We have an API which is open, which means developers can build all kinds of applications using our content and, in an NBN environment, that amplifies that substantially. Customers will be able to leverage our imagery in very powerful ways to build their business, and I have talked through some of those already. And, as I said, it will turbocharge the application of our product to innovation, to new product development and to research. So it is a serious shot in the arm in terms of how our customers would use our product. It is certainly a very nice fit with what we do.

In terms of our own internal business view of the impact of the NBN, like I said, we are a rich content business. Each of our city photo maps is about a terabyte, and we create five of them every month. We have a huge data storage and serving capability, as you can imagine. So, clearly, better access to the premises of high capability fibre we think will boost customer adoption of our product. What we are looking for, I guess—and this is part of the process of investigation for the government side—is more clarity around pricing. I am sure you have heard this from others. The pricing of being able to connect to a 100-megabit-per-second link has to be internationally competitive for us. We are 18 months in the market. We are looking to scale the business overseas, and you would be well aware that the cost of broadband in other countries is substantially lower than here. What we would like to see is an NBN that is competitive in access price, because in a business sense it becomes a decision for us as to whether we want to host and serve all of our content here or look at doing that offshore.

I guess that is my broad thumbnail sketch of how we view the NBN. As I say, from the customer side we think there is going to be a lot of excitement about it in terms of how people use our product. We think there are some really good opportunities in terms of some of the larger projects that we are progressing, like the all-of-Australia project, but we are waiting with bated breath on pricing.

CHAIR: Thanks.

Mrs PRENTICE: You would bring a copy of those?

Mr Young : Absolutely.

CHAIR: Great. I just have a couple of questions there. Your all-of-Australia photo—your ongoing photos—to some extent reminds me of some of the stuff we have heard about the SKA project, a networked astronomy tool to take pictures of the sky. But it is a terrestrial version of that, if you like. Part of what we heard about the SKA is that having that capacity here will drive a whole lot of advantage to us as a nation for flow-on research and development to be based here as well. I am just interested to know how you would see your product and service. Is it done anywhere else in the world as a whole nation? Would it give us some advantages?

Mr Young : Let me address that bit by bit. We are an aerial based technology, so we have invented a camera system that we strap to Cessnas. The competing technology, I guess, is satellite based. What satellite gives you is a very large coverage very quickly, and it gives you very rapid turnaround; the longest you have to wait for new satellite imagery is 24 hours. The limitation with satellite is that it is commercially available only to 50-centimetre resolution. Our capability can take us down to three-centimetre resolution, so the clarity of what we offer is orders of magnitude greater than satellite technology.

Mrs PRENTICE: It is commercially available only to that level, but people like the military have better satellite vision.

Mr Young : They do. In fact, we were speculating yesterday as to what the current military grade would be. We believe it is in the order of three to five centimetres. If we have time, I will show you some three-centimetre and five-centimetre imagery that we have captured.

CHAIR: What are we looking at at the moment?

Mr Young : That is 10-centimetre imagery. To clarify what we mean when we talk about resolution, when I say '10-centimetre resolution' it means that every pixel on your screen covers an area on the ground of 10 centimetres by 10 centimetres. So, as resolution goes down to five centimetres and to three centimetres, you get extraordinary clarity, which means you can zoom right in without degrading the image. What we are looking at here are some examples of the sort of content. It is at different zoom levels, but there is 10-centimetre imagery there.

To get back to your question, Sharon, I think this does have a lot of similarities to the SKA in that it is a big-picture pitch, if you like, with substantial flow-on benefits. The SKA will massively boost research capability and certainly attract a lot of that to Australia. The uniqueness of our platform is global. There is no technology in the world that can cover very large areas very quickly, very cheaply and at very, very high resolution.

Mrs PRENTICE: You have only Australia included, haven't you?

Mr Young : Yes, like I said, we have been launched as a company for 18 months, and we are looking at international expansion at the moment. We expect to be doing some flying in one of three locations sometime this calendar year.

CHAIR: If you are a commercial outfit developing a product or service that was off the back of image, I would imagine that you would say, 'Hang on, Australia is the only place where they have got this quality of imagery for a whole nation. We want to test bed things and so forth,' and the attraction would be to come here—and often a flow on from that is that headquarters become based here. Is that the sort of thing that you—

Mr Young : Absolutely. It would be a magnet for investment. We are also talking to Tasmanian stakeholders on a scaled down version of this project, which would be all of Tasmania captured annually. This has some interesting synergies with where the NBN rollout is at the moment. Again, that would be made available to all government, all businesses and all community, but we would see that as a magnet for investment and interest in that state in the same way that it would for Australia.

Mr NEVILLE: You could get down to the junction boxes and footpath pits, I suppose?

Mr Young : Absolutely.

Mr NEVILLE: What about stringing from pole to pole? Can you get down to that definition?

Mr Young : You are probably talking about one-centimetre resolution. We have done testing on one-centimetre resolution, and it works. We do not have it on the website because we were a bit concerned about the privacy implications, which is part of the reason why we do not fly regularly at that resolution. The other reason is that there is an enormous amount of data. Once you get below five-centimetre resolution you really start to see some incredible detail.

Mr NEVILLE: Did you say this cost you potentially or actually $75 million a year?

Mr Young : Actually.

Mr NEVILLE: Without prying into your business, how do you get that back?

Mr Young : It would be a centrally funded project, obviously. Someone would pay to have that done, and the payoff is that everyone gets the content. It needs to be funded, which is the primary reason why we have not done it yet. The economics of our platform have changed—the cost of doing this kind of work.

Mr NEVILLE: Is there an automatic charging facility if people want to access your site privately?

Mr Young : Yes. We are working on that at the moment. At the moment we have a licensing model that is essentially a canned product. If you want to license a city we can do that for you, but obviously people may just want to buy their house or their suburb so we are working on alternative models at the moment.

CHAIR: So you can go on for free and browse and see things—

Mr Young : Absolutely.

CHAIR: But if you then want to download and utilise it you then pay for that? Is that the model?

Mr Young : No. At the moment, the community and SME sector can do all of that. We let them into the lolly shop and say, 'Go for it. Download it, use it, take it away'. But if you are from government you need a licence to get in the front door, and if you are from some of those larger corporate sectors you need a licence as well.

Mrs PRENTICE: It would also be a great aid for things like the fuel industry, looking for locations.

Mr Young : Absolutely, yes.

CHAIR: The other thing I wanted to follow up on was that free access thing. I do not know whether you guys would do it, or in conjunction with the uni or something, but the other thing I am thinking of is that you could utilise some of the stuff that the university was talking about with scale, where people could participate if they have got broadband at home in helping to provide data back. They could say, 'I will go through all the photos of my suburb and identify X, Y and Z and feed that back to councils,' in the way that they can currently do that with the astronomical photos and record what type of solar system is seen and so forth.

Mr Young : That is right.

CHAIR: Because you are providing it for free, you could have people utilise it that way—school students.

Mr Young : Absolutely. You are obviously aware that location based services are a large and growing part of the economy, particularly in the mobile space. There are some really interesting examples in the US, where municipal governments are setting up applications where citizens can report damaged infrastructure in real time.

CHAIR: That is what I was thinking of.

Mr Young : This would quite naturally feed into that, except you would not have to be standing there to see it; you would be able to see it online.

CHAIR: You are not going to have a council officer sitting there going through hundreds of photos to identify that. But if you have the citizens actually able to say, 'I will go on each month and check out the photo of my street and report the information back,'—

Mrs PRENTICE: Brisbane had a system where you text in a photo of the damaged street sign or the broken kerb and channelling with the location. The council officer could then gather those by suburban location and go, 'Yes, we need this workman, this workman and this product.'

Mr Young : Absolutely, you could use it for that. Brisbane City Council is a customer of ours. They use our content for a whole range of different reasons. I will show you some now, once my fabulous wireless works!

CHAIR: As we have travelled around our colleagues have discovered that it is always the wireless connection!

Mr Young : While this is loading I will explain the background to this. When the Brisbane floods were heading towards their peak, we were contacted by Brisbane City Council and Ipswich City Council, who asked if we could very quickly go and capture a photo map of their area, a) so that they could record the high water mark for future disaster planning and b) from an operational perspective for the immediate response and the reconstruction and rebuilding effort. Being able to see exactly where the damage was is obviously critical. We deployed two aircraft to Brisbane and over the course of two days, when the floods were peaking, we captured 700 square kilometres of very-high-resolution imagery. We flew at 2,000 feet, because the sky was completely overcast. That got us two-centimetre-resolution imagery. So this is an invaluable record of what happened. To be able to capture that amount of data in two days gives you an idea of the scalability and the turnaround of the solution.

CHAIR: If I am a citizen having a blue with my insurance agency about where the water came from and so forth, am I able to access your photos for those purposes.

Mr Young : Yes, you are. We have a client at the moment—one of the larger insurance groups in Australia—who have taken a licence for this imagery and they are using it precisely for that.

CHAIR: I have another question while the imagery is loading up on your computer: does it provide live images?

Mr Young : No, it is not quite that good! Although we have had some customers asking us why they cannot see their car.

CHAIR: I tried to convince my sons that the original Google version allowed me to check when they were and were not home by the car being outside! I didn't get away with that.

Mr Young : I am going to reconnect as my computer seems to have stalled.

CHAIR: While you are working on that, you mentioned the free platform allowing new products and service creators to utilise it and build their own innovative little businesses. Do you have any examples? I know you have only been running for 18 months.

Mr Young : Yes, we have a whole swathe of solar installers. We have a solar panel client in the federal government. The flip side to their business, obviously, is the industry that is out there installing these and taking advantage of the subsidy. These businesses are using NearMap to power a quote engine so that they can remotely quote without actually having to go there. In addition to capturing overhead imagery and terrain data, we also capture four side views, which are useful for a whole lot of purposes, but specifically to enable solar panel installers to identify the north-facing side of the roof and also to get a picture of the incline.

CHAIR: What do you mean by side views?

Mr Young : I am talking about oblique views.

CHAIR: So you are not standing at the front and back of my house and looking right and left.

Mr Young : No, it is a north, south, west, east view.

CHAIR: It is still aerial but—

Mr Young : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: Okay.

Mr Young : This broadband is really not working for me; my apologies. The solar panel installers are an example of where there is an immediate efficiency savings plan.

CHAIR: And they can access you for free, so any solar panel provider can utilise that.

Mr Young : That is right. I am showing you an example of some of the side imagery. It is a north-facing view of Parliament House. We have architects who use our imagery a lot as a base layer over which they can do site planning. They have various applications that will use the photo of the base layer and they draw what the site is going to look like over the top of it. We have tradies, pavers, people who do yard work, mowing services, tree loppers—

CHAIR: I am picturing, for example, a solar installer or a plumber using this to be able to give a remote quote. Do they say to you, 'Oh, that's great but I can't download the blasted thing onto my computer'?

Mr Young : No, we provide them with the tools to do that. You can look at it through the browser. We also provide the tools to cut some of it out and keep a local copy.

Mr SYMON: I think Sharon's point was: is their problem what we have just had on the screen here—that although you may be providing it, they can't easily get it?

Mr Young : No. Their connection, I am sure, will do better than what this is doing today. But that is an example of how it is being used now. You are probably hearing this from everyone, but the challenge in selling the story of the NBN is that you are having to understand and define applications that have not been invented yet. That is very much where we see the NBN adding value to what we do. For example, one of the applications that we—

Mr NEVILLE: How would we just then, relevant to that last thing just—

Mr SYMON: Across the road.

Mr Young : Oh, sorry. You are here.

Mrs PRENTICE: No, keep going to the next one.

Mr Young : Sorry, you are there.

Mr NEVILLE: We are there. Where is St Georges Terrace?

Mr Young : I will go back to the overhead and zoom in.

Mr NEVILLE: Bear with me, Chair.

CHAIR: I am just worried about it dropping out completely.

Mr Young : You can now see the building we are in now. Here is St Georges Terrace down here. If I zoom out and turn the street map on, St Georges Terrace is there and we are on Havelock and Hay streets here.

Returning to the previous point, one of the applications that we see which is novel but really starts to unlock the synergies between NBN and our content is in the computer gaming industry, which is big and getting bigger. Imagine being able to play a racing game where you are racing around your own streets—being able to integrate imagery from your own city into a racing game.

Mr SYMON: I think that happens already!

CHAIR: But you could do it virtually and legally.

Mr Young : Virtually and legally. That is the kind of blue sky—

Mrs PRENTICE: Almost like the Gold Coast a la V8s and indycars.

Mr Young : That is right. Those kinds of applications are in the yet to be invented category, but certainly our content lends itself to doing that and it is really about capacity of the pipe.

Mr SYMON: What size is that file that you are running at the moment? How many megabytes would that be using?

Mr Young : At this zoom level it is probably 20 megabytes.

Mr SYMON: As you go in closer, does that increase it, or does it just stay around the same because of the size of the screen?

Mr Young : Spatial imagery or spatial photography is essentially arranged in a pyramid. When you are at the top zoom level, you might only be looking at three or four tiles. As you zoom in and you want more details, there are more and more tiles at ground level that you need to be able to load.

Mr SYMON: That was actually shown on the screen before when we were watching it load. There were some with pictures—

Mr Young : That is exactly right. When you were looking at that zoom level, the tiles that were loading, relative to the size of screen, were quite large and had a lot of information in them. I will show you a 5 May photo map here which was a three centimetre image and you will see the difference once this finishes loading. As you zoom further down, you consume more and more data. That is where high bandwidth makes a big difference, because instead of waiting five minutes for this to load it just instantly populates on your screen. That goes to my point of the NBN driving customer adoption for our product, because it is instantly there.

CHAIR: And innovation for new products and companies.

Mr Young : Absolutely. There are a whole suite of products that can only really be commercialised if you have very high speed access.

CHAIR: The perennial issue when I was on council was shadowing and all those contentious issues in building applications and things.

Mr Young : Yes, absolutely. One of our aims is to minimise shadowing, so we only fly during times of the day when the shadowing is not going to make a big impact. You want to be able to get down to the ground and still see what is there. But customer service operators in councils are using it to identify areas of dispute where a resident will ring and say, 'My neighbour has a tree hanging over my fence line.' Instead of having to take that down as a call request, the operator can go straight to the image and say, 'I have a photo map that is two weeks old and I can see that tree. I know what you are talking about.'

Mr NEVILLE: How much of Australia have you got covered?

Mr Young : In population terms we cover 75 per cent of the population.

Mr NEVILLE: You do most of the provincial cities.

Mr Young : Yes. We do about 20 of the largest regional centres, and they are typically a 1,000 square kilometre footprint. It is the centres and surrounds, if you like. Our footprint in capital cities is typically 4,000 square kilometres. In Sydney it is 5,000 square kilometres. We capture at 7½ and 10 centimetre resolutions—more than the rest of the entire commercial industry and government capture programs put together. No-one with conventional technologies can capture the resolution and the quantity of data that we can.

Mrs PRENTICE: Are there security issues?

Mr Young : In terms of privacy?


Mr Young : Yes. We are very well acquainted with the national privacy principles. In fact, I used to work for the parent company and when we were acquiring NearMap that was a furious area of due diligence. We got a lot of very qualified advice that reassured us that, if you are flying at 7½ centimetres, you are operating within those principles.

CHAIR: Are there no-fly areas?

Mr Young : We have only been blocked from flying in an area once, and that was over Puckapunyal. We were told at the time that it was only because they were doing live firing.

CHAIR: So it was not the capturing itself that was the issue.

Mr Young : No. Privacy is something that we are very conscious of.

CHAIR: What about Parliament House?

Mr Young : Yes, we have Parliament House. It looks fantastic, actually, on our website. We are very conscious of privacy, which is why we do not put that ultra-high-resolution imagery online. We think people would be a bit concerned about that. I must apologise for this wireless performance.

Mr SYMON: That is our role, isn't it?

Mrs PRENTICE: Isn't this what you are trying to demonstrate?

Mr Young : That is an interesting perspective. Yes, I guess that is correct. So it is like I said: we are very excited about the NBN from our customers' perspective. From a business perspective it is ultimately going to come down to pricing for us, because as we scale we need to consider where we host our servers and that is going to be driven by the pricing of broadband.

CHAIR: We are at time and I am conscious that people have flights to catch and so forth. Thank you very much for your attendance here today. It has been a great real example of where the potential is, what is being realised and what could be realised. Your evidence has been very useful to us. Please get in touch with the secretary of the committee if you have any additional information for the committee. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Once again, it has been fascinating, and thank you very much for the presentation.

Resolved (on motion by Mr Symon):

That this committee authorises publication , including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 12:30