Javier de la Torre is the CEO of CartoDB, a global startup democratizing data analysis and visualization on maps. He is a former scientist with a research focus on biodiversity informatics and global environmental change, and is a recognized expert on open data, open source software, and data visualization.
Javier was interviewed for GeoHipster by Ed Freyfogle.
Q: I have the impression many users of CartoDB are people who wouldn’t otherwise have the technical ability or skills to bring a map to life. Who uses it? How?
A: That is correct. We believe that GIS and mapping in general should not be a niche domain, but that everybody should be able to take advantage from it. We have many different types of users, some of them using it more professionally for development, sales, marketing or BI, and others use it for data exploring and communicating stories with maps.
Q: So people are using CartoDB to tell stories with maps. What are the top three hippest examples?
A: Something I love about CartoDB is the community behind it, so probably most impressive is to see everyday maps of what is happening around the world. It is like you can watch the news just by looking at the maps being created on CartoDB.
But for my personal favourites, I love stories about biodiversity and conservation. Here goes my top three:
- Visualize how far birds migrate in a single night http://lifewatch.inbo.be/blog/posts/forward-trajectory-visualizations.html
- Rat race: A tale of conservation in the Galapagos https://cartodb.com/gallery/rat-race/
- Visualizing nocturnal movements of elephants https://cartodb.com/case-studies/space-for-giants/
Q: But of course it’s not just about trying to make pretty maps, you also need to make money. As we like to say here at GeoHipster HQ, EU branch: “If it doesn’t make Euro, it doesn’t make sense.” On the CartoDB pricing page the most expensive package is named after Mercator, while the middle tier is named after Coronelli. Do you really think Mercator’s contribution to geo is twice as valuable as Coronelli’s?
A: Ha! Mercator gave us the projection we now see in all 2D maps, and Coronelli gave us 3D globes… I think Mercator clearly won 😀
Now, what you are looking at is our basic plans, but we have a set of Enterprise plans https://cartodb.com/enterprise. In those cases we provide extra enterprise services, more capacity, SLAs, performance, and many more things. This is where we make most of the money. We have a really long tail of clients, which I think is important — to provide service to a larger audience — but right now the money is in the enterprise.
Q: It’s a cliche, but we often hear “A downturn is the best time to start a company.” You started CartoDB in the middle of Spain’s worst economic crisis in living memory. What was that like?
A: Well, the good thing about starting in the middle of a crisis is that things only get better! So for us honestly it was not really something we thought about. We bootstrapped this client for a looong time growing carefully based on our resources. That made us really care about the use cases, the users, and the sustainability of our business models.
Q: We’re seeing more and more geo-product companies like CartoDB (or Mapbox with their B round announcement a few weeks back) taking the VC funding route. Why, and why now? More importantly, how does the story end? How will the VCs get their money (with a tidy profit, natch) back?
A: Well, there has never been a better moment to create geospatial technology. There are many changes going on at the same time that are calling for a disruption on the technology, business models, and market in general. Geo has been special for way too much time, but now is infiltrating everywhere. There are several open fields from a business perspective. Mapbox is going for the LBS market with OpenStreetMaps, Planet Labs is disrupting at the Satellite, and we are going after the Enterprise data. There is multi-billion-dollar business in all those areas, and there has never been a bigger demand than now. So it makes sense for the VC world to show their interest in the field.
For us the return is very clear — we aim to provide a great ecosystem where organizations find value and pay for it. In other cases it might be hard to figure out how they will monetize, but in our case big revenues will provide big returns to our investors.
Q: If you weren’t doing CartoDB, which geo start-up would you work for?
A: Actually my second love is in Precision Agriculture http://agricgear.com/ 🙂 There is something amazing about solving a real problem in the most simplistic way. And most people don’t know I am an agriculture engineer.
Q: You’re a Spanish company developing in the open, last year OpenStreetMap’s State of the Map was held in Argentina, and now the first SotM LatAM has been announced for Santiago, Chile in the autumn. It feels like OSM is really taking off in the Spanish-speaking world in the last two years or so. Is that perception correct, and if so why is it happening?
A: I would not say it is just about the Spanish-speaking world. OSM is catching on everywhere, and it was a matter of time that the Spanish-speaking world would get into it. In Wikipedia Spanish is the second language after English. Now, more specifically about Latin America, I think it has to do also with the development of an Open Data movement, and the realization that crowdsourcing will often provide better results than relying on private or governmental data. I would expect in the future for OSM to have more contributors in Santiago de Chile than in New York, honestly.
Q: Let’s delve a bit into your background. Is it true you were very unhip as a child, and then only really blossomed during your studies in Berlin, the current epicentre of EU hipdom?
A: What? No way! Before Berlin, Madrid was the capital of fun in Europe. Although I have lived in London and Rome too, and I have to recognize that Berlin is one of the most fun cities to live now in Europe, that’s for sure.
On the other hand, Germany is a country that teaches you how to destroy and reconstruct potatoes in 1,000 different ways, that must have helped somehow.
Q: It’s great to see an EU company trying to conquer the world. Any other up-and-coming players in the European geo space that geohipsters should be keeping tabs on? Who’s doing hip stuff?
A: Hey! I think there are a ton of European geo-startups trying to conquer the world! Take a look at Mapillary or Nutiteq for example.
Q: Any final advice for geohipsters out there?
A: Take a look at our jobs page https://cartodb.com/jobs 😉