SKIPTON, North Yorkshire, is a town steeped in history. But for the digital mapping company, Gaist, headquartered in this “gateway to the Dales”, success has resulted from horizon scanning – and identifying future trends.
Long before data was hailed as ‘the new oil’ and the world’s most valuable resource, Gaist’s founder, Steve Birdsall, identified a need for the provision of precise, detailed information about that most critical of infrastructure: our roads.
The former army surveyor understood that, using artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies and analysis techniques, he could capture and analyse a previously unimaginable level of detailed data about the road network and its surrounding environment or roadscape.
Gaist’s success in mining the mysteries of the roads has seen it win multiple awards and secure the backing of BGF, the private equity group. The systems it has developed are some of the most advanced of their kind internationally.
It has built a vast database of more than 3.5 billion megabytes of imagery and today is in demand both with traditional organisations and a new breed of ‘smart’ mobility companies. Their need is the same: Precise, fresh, intelligence and analysis about the roads and roadscape to power their decisions and help them to develop their operational strategies.
Not content with the surging demand at home though, Gaist is preparing to breach a new frontier: Africa. The company has signed contracts to support the Kampala Capital City Authority and the Uganda National Roads Authority, to develop their highways asset management capabilities and enhance their transport infrastructure – vital for economic growth in the region.
Despite obvious barriers to doing business – including political instability, security concerns and constraints with existing infrastructure – Africa is regarded as key to boosting Britain’s post-Brexit trade prospects.
Theresa May sought to promote economic ties with the continent in a 2018 visit to South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. At this year’s UK-Africa trade summit, Boris Johnson spoke of the UK’s ambition to be the investment partner of choice for Africa, “create (ing) hundreds of thousands of jobs and ensure (ing) the mutual prosperity of all our nations.”
Gaist is not going it alone – the project is a collaboration with Shimizu, a Japanese engineering giant which has been working with Gaist to develop an effective roads management in its own country.
In 2019, Gaist attended with Shimizu the Seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) in Yokohama, Japan. The conference was launched in 1993 by the Government of Japan, to promote ‘Africa’s development, peace and security, through the strengthening of relations in multilateral cooperation and partnership.’
Testimony to Gaist’s stand-out level of innovation comes from the praise heaped on it by its partner – itself from a country famously at the forefront of innovation. Daisuke Kato, Shimizu’s London representative, explains: “In Japan, there are no companies which provide such a level of high visibility and usable system for road infrastructure as Gaist does.”
The traditional Japanese route to understanding and evaluating road condition, he says, is much less advanced – relying on metrics such as cracking ratio and rutting depth.
And while Japanese roads are, in general, in a better condition than those in the UK, the country shares many of the UK’s problems: “Many local municipalities are struggling to find sufficient budget for road maintenance – especially when the priority with an ageing society and depopulation is the welfare budget.
“But a good understanding of road conditions is essential to provide efficient maintenance. The needs for Gaist’s services in Japan, are huge.”
In Uganda, Gaist, Shimizu will join forces to provide an assessment of the condition and maintenance needs of the country’s road networks.
The work will be carried out in line with the mandate of the Uganda National Roads Authority to “efficiently develop and maintain a safe and sustainable national road network for the Economic Development of Uganda” and its vision to achieve, by 2025, “great roads, great user experience.”
Following early ‘proof of concept’ work activities are ready to proceed and Gaist is busy putting in place the hardware and systems which will enable the Ugandan road authorities to benefit from its unique solution and to use the intelligence it provides to develop an effective strategy for enhancing the country’s transport infrastructure.
Using the tools and techniques developed and refined by Gaist over more than a decade, every detail of the country’s network – which comprises 21,000km of national roads; 17, 000km of district roads; 2,800km of urban roads and about 30,000km of community roads, – will be mapped from surface texture, to risk factors, cracking types and material loss.
Steve Birdsall is thrilled that Gaist’s intelligence is able to play such an instrumental role in the strengthening the UK’s links with Africa and helping to boost fragile economies: “Many years ago I saw a need for this data. Now, our time has come in earnest and the need for it and the benefits it can unlock both economically and socially is becoming clear not just in the UK but globally.”