Ecometrica executive chairman Richard Tipper
Ecometrica executive chairman Richard Tipper and chief executive Gary Davis tell BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe about how the company’s technology is helping to tackle climate change.
Businesses and governments have long been aware that their working environments, both at home and globally, are changing. Thinking beyond our homes and offices, these environments extend to the farms that produce our coffee and barley, the forests that provide timber, house most of the world’s animals and take carbon out of the atmosphere, and the vast lakes, rivers and oceans that provide us with most of our fresh water and the air we breathe.
A changing climate creates risk and uncertainty in all these environments, and organisations need to be increasingly quick to react. One technology company in Edinburgh is at the forefront of helping global businesses and governments to reduce the time it takes to gather and understand this data from months to mere hours. Ecometrica has developed end-to-end environmental software-as-a-service (SaaS) that allows companies to account for their use of energy, water and other resources and enables governments to use satellite data to monitor forests, farms and other locations on a landscape scale.
“Our platform is a bit like Netflix – we produce some of our own content but there is also other third-party providers’ content on our platform too,” explains executive chairman Richard Tipper, who co-founded the company in 2008. “That could be publicly-available free information or it could be commercial information.
“We’re not trying to produce all the content ourselves. Instead, we work with the best experts in each area and see how they can package up their expertise and content and transmit it over our platform to end users.”
Chief executive Gary Davis, one of Tipper’s co-founders, adds: “That’s where our strengths lie. There’s a lot of complexity involved in the chain of taking data from a satellite and turning it into something usable that can be interpreted in a web browser.
“We take away all of that complexity and give our clients – whether they’re governments or corporates – a solution that they can access in a web browser without having to be an expert. You don’t have to go to university and learn how a geographic information system (GIS) works to use our platform and get answers out of it.
“These days, people are familiar with Google Maps and similar applications, so that provides some kind of level of familiarity with an interface such as ours. When you see one of our maps, you intuitively know how to interact with it and get insights from it.
“We have hidden away all the complexity that’s required to get that information to you so you don’t have to know how it works. It means decision makers can use a web browser to get really important, detailed insights into their land-based assets from anywhere in the world.”
That information and those insights can come in all different shapes and sizes. For companies, the mainstay of Ecometrica’s work is to help them account for their GHG emissions, their use of energy, water and other resources, and their impact on the natural world. “GHG accounting is now mandatory in the UK for quoted companies,” explains Davis. “Requiring corporates to report their emissions has driven change.
“Companies are competitive – they want to do better than they did last year and are competitive with their peers. To drive down GHG emissions, you need to reduce energy or other consumption and that in turn reduces costs.
“We specialise in providing the accounting systems to enable companies to account for their environmental performance, including GHGs. From that they will take on initiatives themselves internally or with the help of experts like ourselves to work out reduction strategies.
“Most companies will have some form of reduction strategy, whether they know it or not, because they will always be looking to take costs out where they can. Quite often you’ll see the carbon efficiency or energy efficiency of a company increase over time.
“The amount of GHG produced per thousand pound of turnover will be going down over time. Business has made a lot of progress in this area and it’s a business imperative to do so.
“By accounting for those GHGs, you can tell that story at the same time. One of the things we do is help our clients to tell that story.”
Ecometrica has worked with a roster of blue-chip clients over the years, including Associated British Foods, oil giant BP and transport group National Express. Overseas customers include CSA Group, formerly the Canadian Standards Association, and mining firm Iamgold Corporation.
When it comes to the public sector, the company can help governments to monitor whether their policies and programmes are being effective on a landscape or regional scale. Its technology platform takes Earth observation (EO) data from satellites and uses in-built tools to analyse the information, giving users the answers they need.
“For example, as part of its climate change commitments, the UK spends about £200m a year to support developing countries to help reduce deforestation, improve forest management and restore forests,” says Tipper. “The effectiveness of that revenue stream needs to be monitored.
“Working with the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and other partners, we developed a system that allows EO data to be used effectively. We worked out which EO data could be used to study different types of forests and how that information could be combined to deliver the useful information that the programme evaluators need to produce their metrics of effectiveness.
“We’re now starting to take the model that we assembled for forests and replicate it in other areas. We’re already starting in agriculture through engagement initially with Rothamsted Research and a Wales-based specialist agricultural monitoring company to look at how we can get better information about how agriculture in the UK and other parts of the world is doing, particularly through a combination of environmental performance and the performance of different crops, along with adherence to rules and regulations.
“Another area that’s related to agriculture is the monitoring of soil moisture, water-logging and run-off. We’re using a combination of satellite data and other meteorological information to understand which areas of the country and which parts of the water catchments are becoming saturated and how flood extents or surface water are changing over time so we can have a much-better understanding of how water moves within a catchment and when different types of vegetation are becoming saturated.
“That can be partly for flooding but also there are lots of other related issues around the run-off of nitrates affecting water quality, surface water contamination and the cost of water treatment – it’s all related to this idea of soils in the upper end of the catchment becoming saturated and material running off those fields into water courses.”
Expanding from forestry monitoring into agriculture represents something of circle being completed in Tipper’s career. He initially studied agricultural sciences at the University of Edinburgh before advising farming organisations in Mexico.
After a master’s degree in technology management, he completed his doctoral research on the economics of contemporary Mayan farmers before going on to develop the Plan Vivo system of payments for ecosystem services, subsequently gaining commercial investment to put the theory into practice in India, Mexico, Mozambique and Uganda.
There aren’t many entrepreneurs who have a connection with the Noble Peace Prize, but Tipper is one of that select group. He was the lead author on two reports written for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the organisation that shared the 2007 prize with former United States vice president Al Gore “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.
“The EO data is a fantastic source,” explains Tipper. “It doesn’t do everything in isolation, but it often works very well with ground-based data.
“There’s a growing abundance of EO data. One of the things we found in our previous company and what we’re trying to address in our new approach is that data is often gathered and utilised in a very fragmented and project-specific way.
“Datasets are assembled for a specific project to answer a specific question then they’re bundled up together and packaged into an answer in a report. But they’re not used systematically or built into a longer-term process, so there’s a huge amount of wastage and inefficiency.
“If someone later wants to get access to that data then it may have been siloed on a desktop computer or a GIS somewhere that people may find difficult to access. And when they do access it then they may find it difficult to understand what version of the data it was.
“That whole process of working in a fragmented project-by-project way is very inefficient and so we felt that there’s a tremendous opportunity for a step-change in the efficiency and the strategic value of the information if you can have much more systematic measurement and if it’s planned and continuous and on a large scale and is of consistent quality.
“Those datasets then become large – bigger than what could be handled on a desktop computer system – and so we need cloud computing-based architecture to handle it. We also need a whole set of other tools around that architecture to be able to make that information available to non-experts. They need to be able to pull the information out without having to download the data, so they can request reports on specific areas of interest.”
Tipper also points to the complexities surrounding the ownership of data, with some information being publicly available, but other material being classed as proprietary or confidential. His system is designed to deal with such complex intellectual property (IP) issues, allowing the user to simply concentrate on getting answers to their questions.
“The level of innovation here is incredibly high – Richard has been innovating in this field since before I was working for him – he measured Ford’s European carbon footprint back in 1996 when I was still a lad,” laughs Davis. “We’ve always been pushing at the barriers of what’s possible and that will continue apace.
“There’s a world out there that will be consuming environmental information. For the people going through school and university now, it will be normal business for them to have environmental sustainability data alongside financial data when they’re looking at companies or any organisation.
“That process is just starting now, but when you look back in 20 years I think some of the work that we’re doing now will be seen as the starting point, particularly on the mapping side.”
Much of that innovation takes place at the company’s head office in Edinburgh. It also has sales offices in Boston, London and Montreal and is expanding into South America, where its services are in demand to monitor the health of the tropical rainforests. The company’s headcount has doubled over the past three years to 35, while its turnover over the same period has soared by 179% to £2.25m. The growth in revenues led to Ecometrica being listed as the second fastest-growing small business in Scotland in a recent league table.
Looking ahead, Davis highlights the international agreement to tackle climate change signed in Paris as a big opportunity for the business. “When you look at the funds that have been committed globally to reduce emissions and increase adaptation and mitigation, $100 billion a year globally is obviously a large sum of money,” he says.
“You need to judge how effectively that money is being spent so the monitoring systems we’ve put in place with government agencies and aid organisations are exactly what’s required for the global climate fund. There’s a huge opportunity to put in place global monitoring systems for the money being spent and we’re leading the way on that in the UK, so that’s a big opportunity.
“It remains to be seen what will happen in the Trump era, but there will still be a lot of good work going on globally and a lot of opportunity for us to help organisations monitor the effectiveness of the money they’re spending.”