Yotta’s Law of Technological Development – Dominic Browne, Highways Magazine
Dominic Browne talks to Nick Smee, CEO of asset management software provider Yotta, about how the company is staying at the forefront of the sector by remaining true to its principles.
You may have heard of Moore’s law about the pace of computing power development? Roughly, it states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every two years, though the cost of computers is halved. Highways would like to posit an amendment hypothesis. We call it Yotta’s law: any platform with sufficient functionality (plus a prime utility, and an elegant interface) will be able to consume new technology rather than being consumed by it. The computer itself is one example. A more classic example is chess. The total number of moves possible in chess is around 38 to the power 80, or 10 to the power 126 – according to the BBC’s Science Focus – which is ‘far larger than the number of particles in the visible universe’. So computers had to adapt to chess, rather than the other way round. And there is Yotta of course – not quite as famous perhaps but still the company’s Horizons and Alloy platforms are built on roughly the same principle: develop an agnostic system of maximum adaptability to new data and you can’t go wrong.
In 2012, Yotta released the sector-leading asset management software, Horizons. It went on to develop the connected asset management software platform, Alloy, a system designed to withstand a generation of technological change, which effectively and accurately predicted the advance of both sensor data and AI. Yotta is in a position where any new advance in data simply makes the system more powerful and more effective.
As Mr Smee says: ‘I think any technology provider who thinks their system has to be the only system in use at an authority will find themselves not doing well over time. You need to have tech that is open enough to work proactively with customers. We work with anyone our customers want us to work with to help asset management overall. Yotta does not own any data; we are the consumers of data. We own IP that does things with the data. We would be very willing participants in trying to make that data come alive and make people feel they can engage with it.’
Last year, Yotta signed a collaborative agreement with 3D and AI software provider GPC Systems (GPC). GPC’s 3D Measure solution ‘provides a method of both quickly and accurately measuring potholes via 3D imaging, ensuring resource costs can be kept to a minimum’.
GPC is also integrating its 3D Construction tool with Alloy, meaning customers will be able to assess a highways construction project, accurately measure the size and volume of the job and any in-fill materials needed and ensure all the data is captured and shared.
Highways can reveal Yotta has made another adaption in response to the climate crisis declared by so many local authorities.
Mr Smee says: ‘We have just added markers into the Horizons models around emissions to help authorities assess their [clean air] targets in built-up areas, where we are seeing lots of nitrogen and other pollutants.’
‘You are actually now able to put datasets into Horizons and it will work to help drive down emissions. It can say, if you are seeing a huge slowdown of traffic in these areas, that there might be better ways [of carrying out the maintenance work]. There might be traffic management systems out there that could help develop that further but certainly we see it as an important part [of our work] and will have sensor technology and options to capture those emissions.’
Though the company predicted the rise of sensors, Yotta stands apart from the industry itself and Mr Smee is keen to emphasise that Yotta is about asset management and data, and not the equipment that produces it: ‘There are so many sensors out there. We have never decided to go into the sensor market and create our own.
‘Our group company has a background in electronics so it is well within the capability of the wider business but we would prefer to work with organisations that have a whole product and are working with common customers to provide a new data source that doesn’t require an annual refresh of the data so you can get at a much higher cadence.
‘The most popular sensor markets are based around lighting assets, though drainage assets are becoming increasingly popular.
‘I think the sensor market is about 5% there at the moment. It will be something that increases and we will see an explosion as the networks required [5G and local area networks, for instance] are more available to people and the funding mechanisms for rollout become easier to navigate for authorities.’
Internally, Yotta’s systems could in the future adapt to each other, Mr Smee says: ‘Our vision is that Alloy and Horizons become one product ultimately. [But] because Horizons is contemporary still, in that there is no new tech we need to embrace with it, it is not a high priority.
‘Ultimately, Horizons is pavement-focused. From an Alloy perspective we don’t just manage the pavement, we manage the wider asset set that a local authority looks at. We see great value in expanding those predictive models [in Horizons] to the different asset classes.
All the lessons we have learned on honing what we have done with Horizons are incredibly valuable to the wider assets classes.
‘Horizons has an array of algorithms that have always been there, based on best practice on deterioration curves, and the more data you put in the more predictive work it can do.’
Having been in the industry for 11 years, and introduced disruptive technology that helped contribute to the transformation of local asset management, Mr Smee is in a good position to give an overview of how things have changed.
‘People sometimes say highways is slow moving but actually there is a lot happening. We have seen a huge amount of innovation being brought into it. I think it has been really embraced by the sector. When we first created Horizons there was nothing like it in the industry; we showed it to a highways manager and he was very impressed but he said: “Nick you have come from outside the sector and been a little naïve. Nobody will use this. It is too technological.” I am glad to say he was wrong and it has changed attitudes and practices.’
Yotta now works with scores of local authorities and Highways England, and in markets across the globe. Just as it has adapted to new data sources, Yotta has always built products to work with local knowledge and priorities. Part of its success was to put a keen focus on visualisation, to ensure the system is easy to use with the complexities hidden behind the interface. Highways would suggest the mistake the errant highways manager made was a failure to understand Yotta’s law (still a hypothesis).
Just like the game of chess; people use Yotta because the interface is easy, the utility is perfect, and the data behind it is effectively infinite.