Jan Erik Solem is the CEO of Mapillary and is passionate about all things computer vision-related. Prior to co-founding Mapillary in 2013, he founded Polar Rose — a face recognition software for mobile and web, which Apple bought in 2010. Solem has published over 15 patents and applications, and is the author of a best-selling computer vision book called Programming Computer Vision with Python. Solem resides in Sweden, and is an associate professor at Lund University.
Jan Erik was interviewed for GeoHipster by Todd Barr.
Q: Each city has its own “flavor” of geo-scene, what is the geo-scene like in Copenhagen / Malmö?
A: It is a mix of community groups, GIS companies, and location services startups. There are regular meetups for GIS geeks in a forum called SamGIS, and more-entrepreneurial events like the LocationDay conference. Wayfinder was an important node in Malmö before Vodafone shut that down. If I were to add a “flavor”, I’d say that it is mobile-focused. Traditionally, a lot has revolved around mobile because of the strong presence of Sony Mobile (formerly Ericsson, then Sony-Ericsson, now Sony).
Q: Your background is in applied mathematics, and you built a company around facial recognition. What brought you to geo?
A: I’m a computer vision person. My work from undergrad to PhD all revolved around reconstructing scenes and recognizing objects from images. I started a face recognition company during my PhD days and worked on that for about 6 years, then at Apple for a few years.
Since my PhD days I have always been interested in building a system for collaboratively reconstructing places from photos, and over the years I saw the connection between that and geo grow in importance. Me and the team at Mapillary are all fairly new to geo and are constantly learning. We’re approaching things from a computer vision angle and have no past technology choices or biases in geo.
Q: Describe your “A-HA” moment when you conceptualized Mapillary?
A: I built a prototype iOS app and persuaded two friends to bring their phones and map a newly-built area in the Malmö harbor. We spent one hour on a cold Sunday morning collecting data. When I looked at the results, that was the real a-ha moment. Things became very concrete once I saw that data from phones would be good enough. One of the friends who helped me that Sunday morning was my PhD student Yubin who also became a co-founder of Mapillary.
Q: What do you see as Mapillary’s biggest challenge in the geospatial business space?
A: Delivering a great experience worldwide. We’re a global company, anyone can contribute anywhere, and our community is in over 170 countries. What we’re seeing is that in developing countries devices are just catching up now, and making the app run well is a challenge sometimes. Also connectivity is poor in many areas where we have a challenge in effectively serving and collecting content. This goes for both our community and for our customers.
Q: The niche that Mapillary is filling is exciting and is applicable in a number of areas. Describe for our readers some of the swank things your users have done with your technology?
- Helping make Lesotho the best-mapped country in Africa
- People mapping dangerous areas in their cities
- Helping with mapping of Dar es Salaam using phones and action cameras
- Mapping your town with a 360 camera on a selfie stick (check out the shadow of the mapper in this image)
- Cities doing road inventory using ad-hoc camera rigs
- Photo-mapping remote tourist destinations
Q: Judging from your Twitter feed and blog, all you do is work. What do you do when you aren’t grinding on a keyboard?
A: Honestly, it is mostly work. I have three young children. Besides work and family there is little room for other activities. I don’t watch TV, play games, follow sports, or other “normal” everyday activities. I ride bikes when I have the time, and I love to do longer rides and races.
Q: Where do you see Mapillary in 10 years?
A: We’re aiming to be the best solution for visualizing places and for exploring and visiting places through photos. As a side effect, if successful in that, we are also a great provider of data for mapping, navigation, and automotive. We want to build an independent entity that can be integrated anywhere — in apps, in mapping platforms, websites etc.
Q: As the founder of two successful startups, what advice do you have for the geohipsters out there?
- Only start something if you are willing to spend at least five years of your life on it. Building something great takes time and commitment. Even fast-growing companies take years to develop.
- You are not your education. Most skills can be learned. The engineer can learn basic business skills, the business graduate can learn to code, etc. Pick up what skills you need to do the necessary work and continue learning, always.
- Small teams can do amazing things. It is entirely doable to have the best solution without having a large organization.
- There is no shortcut to hard work. The “work smarter” advocates have it all wrong, the hours you put in are crucial.
Q: Lastly, do you consider yourself a geohipster?
A: Um, probably not 😉 .