Inside the Digital Catapult, six startups at the forefront of data innovation

The recently opened Digital Catapult in London’s Kings Cross is home to ambitious technology startups innovating around big data

At the opening of the Digital Catapult innovation centre in November 2014, digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said: “It is an exciting time to be a tech business in the UK. Our digital economy is already one of the strongest markets in the world, valued at more than £100bn.

“Growth areas – including the internet of things (IoT) and digital creative industries – are opening a range of opportunities for companies in the sector.”

Keeping British technology companies at the forefront of innovation is critical to the Innovate UK-funded Digital Catapult’s mission. 

With startup incubators springing up around the country – Digital Catapults are also opening in Brighton, Bradford and Sunderland – digital startups do not want for hothouses.

The London Digital Catapult is above the Euston Road, opposite the British Library and equidistant between Kings Cross St Pancras and Euston stations. CEO Neil Crockett describes it as just five minutes’ walk from virtually anywhere in the UK.

Just after a few weeks, the centre had attracted digital innovators specialising in the field of data. The other three Digital Catapults will specialise in location services, health technology and security.

Some of the startups using the centre lined up at a media data recently, to demonstrate how they are trying to foster a culture of innovation – and invited Computer Weekly along to have a look.

Because we are making this data available, the industry is starting to shake itself up

 Jonathan Raper, Transport API 

Transport API: Big data for public transport

With a wealth of data at their fingertips on schedules, delays and passenger numbers, train and bus companies are well-positioned to enhance their services by making their data openly available to the general public.

But a lot of this information – particularly relating to delays – operators consider sensitive, and they can be reluctant to offer full access to it, fearful of what it might expose.

This makes Transport API, formed with the objective of liberating this data, something of a villain in the eyes of train operators – bus companies tend to be more open, says MD Jonathan Raper.

Transport API is at the heart of the original version of London transport information as well as route-finding tool Citymapper, but it is also now being used in unexpected places – such as in branches of Ikea, where digital signage is used to give shoppers information on local public transport departures.

Independent pubs and even churches have begun to use Transport API data to help drinkers catch the last bus home, and Sunday worshippers avoid the crowds heading to Ikea. Up to a certain number of hits a day, the service is free, a boon to technologically minded vicars.

“There is huge public demand for our data,” says Raper, “and it is very low-cost to provide. Because we are making it available, the industry is starting to shake itself up. The very fact it’s fighting back is good for us.”

For Transport API, working at the Digital Catapult has helped it appear bigger than it actually is, he says.

“As an SME, the odds are stacked against us; we go for public sector procurements and find we need health and safety accreditations, for example. Big companies can do that but we can’t, so the Digital Catapult helps us gain an advantage.”

The Oxford Flood Network

Founded by Ben Ward, owner of spectrum firm Love Hz, the Oxford Flood Network has featured in Computer Weekly before, when it piloted the use of vacant or "whitespace" spectrum – freed up by the switch to digital TV – to warn people living near the river Thames in Oxford of impending floods.

The aim is to construct a citizen-owned network of sensors to monitor groundwater and river levels, providing more in-depth flood alert data than the Environment Agency – which tends to issue wide-ranging, blanket warnings in times of crisis.

In October 2014 the network was just beginning to take off after Ofcom included it in a trial of innovative uses of vacant spectrum. Ultimately, Ward hopes to have at least 30 sensors in operation and says he is on track to achieve this.

However, in recent weeks interest has been flooding in from outside the Thames Valley – notably from hydrologists in Switzerland keen to apply the lessons learnt in Oxford.

The innovations emerging from the Oxford Flood Network were always intended to extend beyond its home town, says Ward. The project’s involvement in the Digital Catapult will help him raise the scheme’s profile and hopefully keep dry the feet of home- and business-owners in vulnerable river basins around the world.

The state is running out of money on a per-person basis, so we need to change the core care model

 Jamie Paton, Canary Care 

Canary Care: Looking after the vulnerable

The vision behind Abingdon-based Canary Care is to help families support and care for vulnerable and elderly relatives by providing insight into their lives, while enabling them to live independently, at home, for longer.

The system comprises four wireless sensors, which monitor movement, temperature, and exit and entry to a property. They relay data back to Canary’s server using a 3G or 4G network, and enable families to see at a glance whether or not everything is as it should be.

The system includes a visitor card to monitor daily visitors, such as carers, meals-on-wheels services or neighbours.

Families can set up text or email alerts, if their relative fails to get up at the usual time, for example, or the temperature of their home drops below a certain level.

Canary Care business development director Jamie Paton says the service will be of particular benefit to what he calls "the sandwich generation" – people struggling to meet the competing demands of caring for ageing parents and their own children.

“The state is running out of money on a per-person basis, so we need to change the core care model,” says Paton. “We are branded for the private sector, and our vision is for the private sector – however we are working with local authorities.”

The introduction of the Care Act 2014 imposed a duty on local authorities to look after the needs of carers as well as those they care for, and Paton says Canary Care could benefit local authorities.

Its involvement with the Catapult and the Technology Strategy Board quango – now Innovate UK – will help give Canary Care a leg-up in raising awareness of its business, he says.

ScraperWiki: Liberating data

ScraperWiki is a Liverpool-based startup that aims to liberate open data from complex tables and present it in a more easily readable, useful format.

The firm is using the Catapult to help it establish a London presence and get it in front of potential investors.

“As a startup, we don’t have many friends,” says chief marketing officer Áine McGuire, “and we need to network to establish a route to market, as well as connecting with and understanding people with data issues.”

ScraperWiki has already worked with a number of public sector bodies, including the Cabinet Office and GDS – for which it built an activity dashboard – and publishing companies including the Guardian Media Group, EMAP and LexisNexis.

It already has around 200 investigative journalists using its service to access open data provided by government organisations, and is creating enhanced tools to enable them to do it more effectively, says McGuire.

ScraperWiki has also worked with the UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in West Africa to make datasets around Ebola available to bodies such as the World Health Organisation, allowing authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to more effectively manage their response to the crisis.

There is quality support and a network of people we can call on and, as a new company, that’s valuable

 Emily Forbes, Seenit 

Seenit: Sourcing user-generated content

Founded by graphic design and video and TV production specialist Emily Forbes, Seenit gives brand owners, enterprises and media organisations an application to interact and collaborate with fans and journalists.

Using a downloadable application linked to a private online studio, directors send push notifications to ask people on the ground at an event to film and record whatever content he or she needs.

This could take the form of getting music fans to make videos at pop concerts or festivals, or journalists on the ground at a newsworthy event to record interviews or seek out compelling shots.

Seenit offers the ability to send rewards to users' devices in recognition of their help. These could take the form of a voucher for a free drink, for example.

Once the video has been sent back to the private studio, the director can edit it online, or download it for use in other programmes such as Final Cut.

Seenit recently worked with Bauer Media – which owns a number of celebrity and pop culture brands in the UK – on the red carpet at the premiere of the first instalment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, to source interviews with the movie’s stars as they arrived.

Rather than having one film crew at the event, trailing wires and lighting everywhere, Bauer took simultaneous recordings from a number of journalists with mobile devices.

“At The Hunger Games, Bauer got videos online before the premiere was over,” says Forbes, “So [Bauer brands] Grazia and Heat could instantly publish it on their domains.”

Seenit engaged with Bacardi to enable party-goers at a corporate event in Bermuda to become a large film crew. The startup has worked with Unilever, the National Lottery and the Team GB Olympic squad.

“To have the recognition the Catapult brings is huge, because we are at a very early stage – we were founded in January 2014 and got our first client in April,” Forbes says. “There is quality support and a network of people we can call on and, as a new company, that’s valuable.”

Thingful: Find your way around the IoT

Thingful is nothing less than a Google-style search engine for the internet of things (IoT).

Launching its beta version in November 2014, the project is designed to make visible not particular websites, but the entire network of connected things. This enables people, businesses and public sector organisations to easily access and make sense of publicly available information from IoT sensors and devices, and incorporate it into new apps and services.

Searchable data could range from air quality monitors on city streets to weather station information, bike-sharing stations and even the location of tagged turtles, claim its owners Usman Haque and Moeen Khawaja.

The search engine uses a proprietary search ranking methodology, ThingRank, to index and make searchable thousands of IoT networks, device platforms and data infrastructures.

It even enables individuals to claim ownership of their things, and attach their data to social networking profiles.

Users can set up watch lists to get immediate, real-time snapshots of data they are particularly interested in. For example, a cyclist leaving for work could set up alerts on air quality and temperature, bike availability at their nearest docking station, traffic sensors along their route, and so on.

 “Today, millions of people and organisations around the world already have and use connected ‘things’, including energy meters, pollution sensors, radiation monitors, seismographs and even planes, ships, bikes and weather stations,” says Usman Haque. “Many choose to, or would like to, make their data available to third parties – directly as a public resource, or channelled through apps, analytical tools and monetisation opportunities.

“There are plenty of tools for building closed networks of connected sensors and devices, but the real value of IoT networks is founded upon their cross-network discoverability. For the internet of things to be truly transformative, we believe people need the tools to access, make sense of and share the data their connected devices generate with trusted third-parties. Thingful provides visibility to all those things out there, makes them more easily discovered and helps break down conventional IoT silos.”

Read more on Technology startups