The Brisbane social enterprise using data to employ diversity

Brisbane’s more than $25 billion infrastructure pipeline is music to the ears of Australian Spatial Analytics (ASA) CEO Geoffrey Smith, who uses big data to unlock the potential of young autistic and neurodiverse adults.

Geoffrey says ASA employs neurodiverse people to process and analyse big data for corporations and governments. 

“We mostly process and analyse infrastructure data, which makes Brisbane a good place to be,” he says. “What makes us unique is that 80% of our 130 staff members live with autism or other neurodiverse disabilities. That makes our mission a little different to your average data services provider – we’re using data to support diversity.” 

Analyse this 

Geoffrey says he started ASA to solve two problems – a social problem and a market problem. 

“The social problem was that more than 50% of young neurodiverse Australians are unemployed, despite the fact that many have natural cognitive abilities and an interest in technology,” he says. 

Before working at ASA, most of Geoffrey’s employees were long-term unemployed. Almost half had never been employed before. 

“We solve this problem by backing people without any experience,” Geoffrey says. “We recruit our new team members through autism advocacy programs and disability employment programs, and we give them the training and the tools of the trade they need. 

“We think of data analytics and processing as a trade or apprenticeship, rather than looking at it through the usual prism of university. A lot of our team members have tried university and it didn’t work for them, which makes it difficult for them to find employment. 

“We pair our inexperienced team members with the 25% of our team members who are seasoned professionals, who have come through Brisbane’s world-class universities, and have fantastic experience with other data services providers, and have reached a point in their career where they want to give back. 

“This gives the client confidence that we can deliver now, whilst also enabling us to upskill our new team members to become productive much faster than they would with your standard four-year university degree and 18-month graduate program. 

“We help them build their confidence and learn skills on the job, and then they deliver just as well as, if not better than, any other analysts I’ve ever worked with.” 

The market problem was that, while the vast majority of Australia’s data extraction and analytics work currently goes off-shore, local procurement policies and data controls which require data to be stored and processed in Australia are creating a need for locals who can do the job. 

“Governments and corporations are looking to spend locally now and avoid off-shoring their data, and by keeping ASA on-shore, we’re able to capture some of that market,” he says. 

“That’s why we’ve grown so quickly – we’ve paired a human need with a market need, and created a strengths-based social enterprise that can deliver for our customers while supporting young people to work and create wealth for themselves.” 

By creating stable and long-term employment for people with disabilities, Geoffrey expects the company to have contributed nearly $5 million in value to the Brisbane economy by the end of the 2022/23 financial year. 

Strength to strength 

Trading from their Brisbane head office since September 2020, ASA expanded to offices in Melbourne in July 2022 and Cairns in January 2023. Of the 130 staff members spread across the three offices, 95 are in Brisbane. 

“Our major clients are all Queensland-based, but we’re picking up interstate and multinational clients as we expand,” Geoffrey says. 

Geoffrey says a key breakthrough for the company came when ASA received the Award for Outstanding Social Enterprise at the 2022 Lord Mayor’s Business Awards (LMBAs). The team has added 19 new members in the five months since winning the LMBA. 

“The LMBAs were enormous for us,” he says. “When I think about our business, I think of it in terms of pre-LMBAs and post-LMBAs. When you’re a young company and you’re putting in tenders and going for government contracts without a huge amount of trading history behind you, you need to build trust. 

“That’s especially true for us, because of the nature of the business. Our first customers took a leap of faith that neurodiversity could be a strength in the workplace, and then the word of mouth spread from here.

“Winning an LMBA helped us to build that trust, and give clients the confidence to work with us and increase their spend with us. I can’t think of anything more impactful – it’s made our lives a hell of a lot easier.” 

The data pipeline 

Geoffrey has started ASA at a pivotal time for Brisbane. The city’s more than $25 billion infrastructure pipeline on its green and gold runway to 2032 includes the transformational Brisbane Metro and Cross River Rail public transport projects, as well as Dexus’ Waterfront Brisbane; the $3.6 billion Queen’s Wharf development; the $2.7 billion Gabba rebuild; and the $2.5 billion Brisbane Arena development. 

“We set up in Brisbane for a reason,” Geoffrey says. “It’s a great city that’s growing very quickly, and there’s a lot of activity in the construction space that we can be a part of. The amount of infrastructure spend that’s going on over the next couple of decades in Brisbane means that we can get in on the ground floor of new projects, major capital works projects, which just isn’t possible in other Australian cities to the same extent. 

“Because we process a lot of spatial data, the sheer size of Brisbane and Queensland also helps us. It’s just an enormous land mass, which is one of the main reasons we started up here.”

Geoffrey says the collaborative nature of Brisbane is another factor behind ASA’s early success. 

“Brisbane definitely has more of a focus on partnering and collaborating than other capital cities I’ve worked in,” he says. “Maybe it’s the weather, or maybe it’s because Brisbane is growing so fast that there’s plenty of pie for everyone to share, but it’s a very friendly city – when we walk into a room, people think of us as partners first, rather than competitors.

“For all of these reasons, Brisbane will always be our headquarters. We’re looking to establish two more offices in the next year, and we’d like one of those to be in regional Queensland. But we’ll always be based here, and we have plans to employ another 50 people in Brisbane in 2023.” 

Geoffrey is also expanding ASA’s offering to solve a third problem for their clients. 

“There are going to be a lot of people required to work in big data jobs to keep up with the technological transformation,” he says. “Companies keep looking at the same traditional pathways, and the same cohorts of people, to fill those roles, and that’s leading to a digital skills shortage. We’d like to help fill that gap by acting as a talent agency, and being the gateway for our employees to find work elsewhere. 

“Once our clients have worked with us, and they’ve procured from us as part of their supply chain, it gives them confidence that they can add one of our people to their team and develop them as their own employee. We’re very excited to be able to offer that service to people and expand the horizons for the members of our team, and we’re going to start rolling that out this year.” 

Aerial of Brisbane Airport runway