June 14, 2024

Times Square billboard features Calgary startup, UCalgary professor

Faramarz Samavati and his BigGeo team were top three in 2024 big Snowflake Startup Challenge
A times square billboard

Not everyone gets to see their face on a digital billboard in New York City’s Times Square, but that’s exactly what happened to Dr. Faramarz Samavati, PhD, earlier this spring.

“It was surprising, I didn’t expect it,” the professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary says.

Samavati, who has been a faculty member for 23 years, also works as a lead scientist for BigGeo.

The Calgary technology company was one of three finalists in the 2024 Snowflake Startup Challenge, a cloud-based platform for emerging startups that had about 900 applications from 100 countries. Another startup won, but the Calgary team was proud to make it to the top three.

BigGeo is one of dozens of companies with ties to UCalgary, which was ranked last fall as the top startup creator out of 32 Canadian academic and non-profit research institutions — for the third year in a row.

Samavati, who leads the Graphics, Interaction and Visualization Lab at the university, was also awarded the largest Mitacs funding grant ever received by the Faculty of Science in April. Mitacs, a national not-for-profit that fosters innovation and economic growth, supports his research in partnership with BigGeo. 

It again highlights a collaboration between the company and his research group. 

Together, they plan to use the company’s global grid system to revolutionize the geospatial data landscape. 

It’s making the data accessible and practical — whether it’s mapping the spread of diseases, determining best spots for housing developments or providing more accurate and timely weather and traffic reports.

Samavati says four of his former students work at BigGeo and the Mitacs grant will help to prepare many others for similar work.

Lakin Wecker, a PhD student on Samavati’s team and chief technology officer at BigGeo, also completed his master’s degree at the university.

“From my perspective, being a master’s student did a lot for my career,” he says. “It helped teach me a lot of valuable lessons.”

Wecker says he learned how to solve complex problems, how to write and how to deal with people.

“Calgary as a whole and Alberta … doesn’t realize what a strong computer graphics program we have at the University of Calgary. I don’t think it gets enough credit,” he says.

“Faramarz is someone who people know worldwide. People know his work.”

Samavati has made significant contributions to modelling methods for 3D objects.

A man stands in front of a poster board

Faramarz Samavati

Colette Derworiz, Faculty of Science

His leadership on various theory-to-real-world projects is helping develop the Digital Earth System. It represents the cutting edge in spatial data architecture, using a global grid system to redefine how geospatial data is managed and used in a 2D and 3D space.

Samavati calls it “next generation GIS.”

Conventional geographic information systems, he explains, use flat-map technology.

“As soon as you use a flat map, you end up with a distortion,” he says. “That creates a lot of misconceptions. It creates a fundamental challenge for data integration.”

Samavati says traditional GIS cannot cope with the massive data flow.

“We need a different and disruptive way,” he says. “We need a more innovative way to work through the GIS.”

Digital Earth, he says, addresses the Earth’s curvature.

“The Earth is not flat, and geospatial data always comes with uncertainty” he explains.

Samavati says he and his research teams have developed many systems with the support of Research & Development and Discovery funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), as well as Mitacs.

“I see more and more interesting challenges,” says Samavati, who’s working to map what’s happening underground as well as above the surface.

“When getting ready to dig in a city, it's important to have all the details about what's underground, where the water pipes, sewer lines, and power cables are located,” he says. “On a bigger scale, like in the oil and gas industry, it is crucial to understand and effectively utilize the valuable but limited and sparse subsurface information. The same idea applies to aerospace. So, how do we bring all this information together in one system?

“The answer is volumetric (3D) Digital Earth system.”

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