What's in use — Ellen Sheidlin // Durov's Code
7 february, 2023
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The attention of many visitors to Gitex, the largest annual technology exhibition in the Middle East (Dubai, October 2022), was captured by the stand of the obscure Urbi company.
The latest came to the exhibition with a geoanalytics B2B service: its users could “walk” through the digital twin of Dubai and find on the map whatever the client looked for: from the neighborhood with the cheapest housing to the quarter with hardly any HoReCa.
Next to that stand there were immersive maps with 3d modeling and the feature of “entering” the building virtually. The maps show the entire layout of the office, up to the doors, bedside tables and sofas. The decision on whether to make such information public depends on the companies themselves. The first version of the map is prepared by AI based on photographs and diagrams submitted by the owner or the developer and “polished” afterwards by Urbi employees.
Not only does the company digitize the information already published in the public domain via ML technologies, but also collects information through a network of its own employees who study all the corners of the city. If there is a path or a hospital in the building marked on the map, it means that an employee of the company personally walked along this road and collected the data, not forgetting to locate the entrance. To verify immersive maps, the employee will also stroll through the office and check whether the AI has correctly drawn the layout according to the documents.
This approach requires significantly more resources than simple aggregation of data from the network. However, Urbi managed to make it cost-effective, high-accurate concerning navigation data as well as references.
Despite the significantly expanded functionality of the presented services, visitors to the spoken exhibition identified the maps in the service 2GIS.The latest entered the UAE market in 2020. Urbi turned out to be an international startup, which has inherited all intellectual property to cartography and navigation services in this region from 2GIS in early 2022. Formally, there is no connection between Urbi and 2GIS, but the new company hired several employees from the Emirati branch of the Russian company. Currently, Urbi employs about 200 people.
“We used to rely on the technologies of a well-known developer of cartography and navigation in the CIS. Since the beginning of the year, Urbi owns all the ip-rights to it in order to develop new products independently throughout the Persian Gulf region," said Mohammed Al. Beloushi, deputy CEO at Urbi.
Urbi officially launched in November 2021, and at that moment the difference between the Arab and Russian companies became obvious. Unlike 2GIS, Urbi focuses on B2B, and does it independently of the Russian “relatives”. The company itself claims to have preserved the cultural DNA of 2GIS. “Durov’s Code” discussed the creation of that DNA and the prospects for 2GIS in the Arab market with Urbi’s CEO Pavel Mochalkin.
In 1994, the Novosibirsk City telephone network looked for a contractor to digitize its telephone line schemes. There was no immediate payment: it was asked of a potential candidate to provide the firm with a pilot project. Alexander Sysoev, then a researcher at Novosibirsk State Technical University, took up this work.
This is how the history of DoubleGIS began, which was actually launched as a volunteer and subsidized project. Sysoev spent about three years and several thousand dollars on the development of the first prototype. He was working part-time then, reselling goods from Poland, raising money to subsidize the project.
Sysoev bought open-access satellite shots of Novosibirsk and overlaid them with information from the customer's archives to prepare a scheme for operators. He turned out to possess a digital city plan, which also remained his property, he being the only investor.
Nota bene: the story took place in the notorious 90s in Russia. The digital card stood for a full-fledged computer software. Sysoev's company began selling it to realtors, post offices, firefighters and other customers.
However, Sysoev has always dreamed of making a B2C product. He started working on a digital map of the city. Coming to an agreement with building materials stores, he put them on the map. Further on, cafes, companies and much more began to appear on the map.
In 2004, the company opened a branch in Omsk, in 2005, DoublGIS sold its first franchise in Tomsk, and in the early 2010s, when the service had already covered the whole of Siberia, the company entered the European part of the country and million-plus cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the same time, the company was rebranded and renamed as 2GIS.
In most cases, the company enters new cities, according to the franchise model: the company finds a local partner and independently creates a city map for him. The size of the partner's main investments, including the franchise fee, is 300,000 rubles. His duties include searching for advertisers and checking the relevance of information in the directory. Currently, the company is already present in 411 cities in Russia and the CIS.
The company went worldwide using the same franchise model. In 2014, the 2GIS partner appeared in the UAE. Time has passed, the franchise turned into a joint venture, several employees of the company moving to Dubai with their families.
Having retained the accumulated knowledge and data, as well as personal market authority, the former 2GIS team abandoned their previous experience by launching a new company Urbi focusing on B2B and B2G. By this time, 2GIS employees had already collected an accurate map of all the UAE, and more than 1 million people using the service's mobile applications.
At the very beginning the Russian company started working in B2B. Its Arab successor Urbi is also entering the B2B and B2G markets, having accumulated a great experience of attempts and mistakes.
Pavel Mochalkin named three key points for creating a successful cartographic business: impeccable data accuracy, cheap and efficient information collection and the convenience of the application for the user. These principles formulated the DNA of B2C 2GIS, but in the case of Urbi are to be implemented in the corporate and government segment.
Urbi prefers to be referred to not as a data aggregator, but as the creator of this data, Mochalkin stresses. “Not only do we provide software for data management, like many companies do. We also are responsible for the correctness and accuracy of our digital model of the city” he says.
While mapmaking in Dubai, Urbi receives data from satellites firstly, then aggregates that information on the Internet and processes it via artificial intelligence. However, unlike most IT companies, the AI plays a secondary role in Urbi. Just like 20 years ago, the most important data is collected manually, via physically bypassing all the trails and premises in the city in order to put them on the map.
The combination of labor and automated information processing helps the company to maintain high quality data and update information daily, spending employees' time effectively. For example, when an Urbi specialist calls the company to verify the information, the robot conducts the introductory part of the conversation from Urbi, and the employee connects if there are detailed questions to be discussed.
One of the key principles of Urbi's current business strategy is that B2B users should not experience any inconveniences, Mochalkin stresses.
“Ordinary corporate software is a complex, unfriendly structure. I wonder, why should a person who has paid for a professional system, treat it differently than Google Maps?” he notes.
Therefore, in the new era of B2B products, choosing a place to open a restaurant should be as convenient as just finding a cafe on the map, Mochalkin believes.
Due to this approach, the company experiences a strong limitation in spreading overseas. Constantly studying whether new car signs have been put on the road and whether the owner of each room in the city has changed, Urbi puts extra efforts while expanding the model of the same quality to other cities and countries. This process requires significant financial and human resources and a strong modernization of algorithms for new regions as well. Therefore, Urbi focuses primarily on the countries of the Middle East and hopes to “bite off the world piece by piece,” Mochalkin says.
Firstly, Urbi was selling raw data to city services, telecom operators and other customers in the Middle East. Soon, the company started to provide Dubai businesses with a full-fledged geoanalytical service. The reason for it is the absence of a habit for transparency: organizations and departments do not like to share data with anyone, even for money.
Each company has to create its own model of the city from scratch, and doing it independently is difficult and inappropriately expensive. Therefore, they have to purchase data from cartographic service providers, “pouring” the objects and data they need into the digital model.
This leads to the fact that a taxi can arrive faster than an ambulance, simply because the company's digital model and algorithms are better than those of the department. Urbi considers the speed and efficiency of algorithms to be its competitive advantage.
One of the key projects of the company at the moment focuses on creating a geoplatform that operates on-premises. It can be installed on the private servers of the organization so that no one can access them. Local authorities use it, for example, to schedule new urban areas or to find a convenient place for surveillance cameras.
To understand this business, the paid version of the service should be considered an analytical panel that helps to visualize statistical data on the map, not a regular map. This system processes, in particular, information about traffic, the number of residents and the working population in a particular point of the city. At the same time, Urbi adds the data provided by the customer for greater adaptability and complete exclusive analytics.
Query results are displayed on the city map in the form of points, graphs and heat maps. Huawei, IKEA and others are among the company's largest customers in the Emirates. In particular, Urbi attracts clients from the real estate sector with the help of the Urbi Pro service — using this tool, they can determine, for example, the most suitable quarters for the sale of housing.
A realtor can easily study the average number of storeys of a building in a particular area, as well as determine the number of buildings under construction and immediately mark them on the map. At the same time, buildings are “completed” on maps in fact online: they are displayed in the digital model of the city exactly in the form in which they are now in the real world.
“Usually, decision makers turn to consulting companies for such information, ask data analysts to provide recommendations.In Urbi we just press a button, and get the very information we need,” explains Mochalkin.
Data on the food preferences can be used to choose a place for a new restaurant or fast food. For this purpose, Urbi recently did a research analyzing the number of coffee shops in the area in relation to the number of its residents, and also revealed where kebab was preferred over burgers more often (it turned out that there are more kebab outlets on only 3 streets in Dubai than burgers), and pizza over shawarma as well.
Such analytics will also be useful to the city administration, for example, as a part of a planning process of the construction of a new hospital. In a couple of clicks Urbi shows residential buildings where the nearest clinic is more than a 30-minute walk away. By adding the data about medical profiles of the doctors working in a particular institution non-obvious insights are revealed: for example, there will not be a single dermatologist at all in the whole area of the city.
With such a USP, Urbi has already managed to enter other markets in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia in particular. In this country they have already ousted several partners of local authorities. For example, the Saudi Arabian rescue Service is now switching to Urbi cards.
The state development strategy of the UAE includes the introduction of technologies in all spheres of the economy. The authorities and businesses are actively investing in the technological development of the region and are looking for new ideas to modernize their own infrastructure. In this background, Urbi's offer may seem attractive to them, since spatial data and geoanalytics are applicable for the majority of economic sectors.
This opens up awe-spiring prospects for Urbi. Rare countries possess a detailed map of the area, and even fewer of them have reference books with information about companies in a particular building. With the help of geo-analytics, it is possible to increase the efficiency of logistics companies, but also of those in less obvious fields: for example, retailers can use it to optimize the warehouse network, oil and gas companies will determine the most suitable points for gas stations on the map.
According to the representative of Urbi, now the UAE is a huge market with low demographics and a high concentration of money among the population, while many online services do not simply exist. Large foreign companies are quite reserved with capturing this market.
“For international giants (maybe not all of them) this market is considered as a not very interesting one, for some reasons. The way Google treats this region opens a great opportunity for us, and there are many similar regions in the world”, Mochalkin stresses.
Additionally, according to him, the Arab world is trying to distance itself from Western services for reasons of its own security.
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