Another interview from my series on the companies and influencers in the PropTech sector, this time with the Founder of Urban Intelligence, Daniel Mohamed. This particular interview is the start of a 5-day review of the companies recently accepted into the PiLabs accelerator programme – a 13-week mentor led programme before a demo day in front of a number of venture capitalists to help them with the next stage of growth in their businesses.
Check out the other PiLabs Accelerator Programme Interviews in this series:
- Part two – Industry Hub – finding the industry people you really want to know
- Part three – Get Office App – creating an engagement platform for all things office
- Part four – Insight Residential – the big data system for real estate
- Part five – Candarin Home – providing greater understanding to student relocation
1/ What made you apply for the PiLabs accelerator in the first place and what is your ultimate ambition during the time you have there?
Whilst we had received some funding from UCL and Virgin Startup to begin developing our MVP, it became quite clear through development that we were going to require a lot more investment. In March, our team were having a Friday afternoon meeting about where we could source potential funding, and I mentioned Pi Labs. Ronan went to their website and pointed out that the deadline for applications for the third cohort was that afternoon at 5pm. Thankfully, Mary (the Programme Director at Pi Labs) gave us the weekend to put something more solid together when I emailed her informing her of our predicament.
I feel that at this point, I should probably say that it wasn’t just about the money! In truth, it really isn’t JUST about the money, Pi Labs have become the focus for property technology in London, and given that we are likely to require several rounds of investment to get to where we would like to be, it seemed like a good place to start in terms of building links with industry leaders and investors. The accelerator infrastructure will also give us the early support we need in terms of structuring our business for fast growth.
Over the next few months, we want to be firing on all cylinders to develop our product, collect relevant spatial data, build links with potential customers, partners and investors. The Pi Labs accelerator will enable us to do that whilst also providing us with access to people who have been and done it all before! Given that this is my first venture and that I’m new to tech, I’m personally also keen to benefit from sustained mentorship on how to build a multi-disciplinary team like ours and getting the most out of everyone.
2/ Tell me what Urban Intelligence is all about? What are you trying to do?
The idea for Urban Intelligence came when I was doing desktop research for a planning application whilst working for a consultancy called Washbourne Field Planning. It was really frustrating that there weren’t better tools available that used technology to minimise the inefficient leg work that built environment professionals have to do to get anything built. It then struck me that there was a huge business opportunity here.
I thought if planners and other professionals had specialised tools to do the background and contextual research for development, it would save everyone a lot of time and money, and make the process much less frustrating for practitioners who have to do this day in day out!
What we’re trying to do, is pull together all of the data out there related to the built environment and property development so that it’s all available in one place, and user friendly. Not only is the technology and methodology going to be highly innovative, but the business model will be too. Traditionally information has been made available from the public sector, with every authority and organisation having different ways of providing this data. We want to present the information consistently, but we also want the development industry to pay for having faster access and better quality information, as they’re largely the beneficiaries of this work. This breaks away from the traditional model of relying on the taxpayer to fund the provision of data and information, in times where public sectors budgets are increasingly being slashed.
I guess I could say our grand vision is:
‘To create a one-stop shop for property development research, providing top quality insight which can be relied upon for projects anywhere in the world.’
3/ You announced a tie-up with CartoConsult and will be collaborating on Londinium 3D. Can you explain the significance of this
The CartoConsult partnership brings together our built environment knowledge and skills together with Tim’s geospatial experience and his links to CyberCity 3D. Londinium 3D is a prototype pilot project, in which we plan to integrate planning policy and other data from the City of London Corporation together with interactive 3D building models.
This is significant for two main reasons. The first is that traditionally Councils have either made available PDF policies maps or where they’ve pushed themselves, 2D interactive geographic information systems (GIS) which don’t really give users a good idea of what’s going on above the surface. For example, in the City of London, you’d have no real idea of the complexity of the skyline and architectural design from the policies map. It’s very important for built environment professionals to consider the context of sites to take into consideration planning rules such as strategic views, overlooking, rights to light and shadowing etc.
Secondly, by linking together lots of attribute data with relevant property parcels and buildings, users will quickly be able to find out more information about their site context to answer key questions. For example; is the building listed? Is it in a conservation area? Is it in flood risk area? Londinium will give users the ability to quickly identify that information, and link to the relevant planning documents which will explain the impact contextual constraints will have on proposals. We also want to make planning a bit sexier (if at all possible) by putting all of this stuff in a really nice interface which will make the research a pleasant experience for our users.
4/ Your first service offering is this single and searchable database. Care to tell us your thoughts on a second and third product or service – where does the industry need to change?
Well there isn’t a shortage of problems for us to try and solve! We have lots of ideas, which we’re keen to get up and running as quickly as possible. I can’t go into too much detail here for commercial sensitivity reasons, but we want to do more related to our planning niche. That might be along the lines of risk and opportunity assessment for development purposes. We want to help our users instantly answer common questions such as; What permitted development rights exist with this building? What’s the planning history? What are our chances of winning on appeal?
This information is commonly assessed slowly on a project-by-project basis, but we feel that it’s quite possible to quantify a lot of these answers at scale by combining the right datasets together… But that’s all you’re going to get for now!
5/ What are the challenges you face as a business in this space to achieve your ambitions?
Of course with ambitions as lofty as ours, we’re going to face a lot of obstacles! But I can give you a couple of examples.
The first is access to the right data. This is being made easier thanks to the EU’s INSPIRE Directive which requires public authorities to release spatial data in a consistent and useful format. The UK government is leading the way with open data, and this makes Britain a fantastic place to begin experimenting in property technology.
Secondly, I think we’re going to face cultural challenges within the industry. Both from senior management reluctant to begin breaking away from traditional property research methodologies, and users who will think that we’re eliminating their jobs. We think that it will take some time to win them around, but it’s important for us to show the industry that we’re giving them the tools to provide the most accurate and high quality advice to their clients. Whilst we love technology, we realise that it can’t do everything! It will be important for firms and individuals to focus on providing added human value, through excellent customer service and through creativity. We just want to get rid of some of the more boring repetitive stuff which doesn’t really add any value!
If you want to know more about Daniel and Urban Inteligence please do check out their website