How an Israeli tech firm helped bail out Cyprus from financial ruin

By taking high-res photos from above, Ofek Aerial helped gov’t assess real estate taxes owed, raising funds needed to repay loans

Udi Friedlander with Ofek's an advanced optical remote-sensing system (Dana Friedlander)
Udi Friedlander with Ofek's an advanced optical remote-sensing system (Dana Friedlander)

In the future, when citizens read about how their country was saved from bankruptcy and a near unraveling of their society in 2013, Cypriots may or may not come across the name of the Israeli company that may just have saved their country.

But even if his company’s name goes unmentioned, Udi Friedlander, the CEO of Ofek Aerial Photos, is satisfied that his company played a key role in enabling the government of Cyprus to keep its commitments to the European Union and close its budget gap – by enabling it to correctly assess the taxes due on real estate in the country.

“In Cyprus, we undertook a project to provide an aerial map of the country in order to enable them to collect property taxes due, which nobody had been paying,” said Friedlander. “We developed a highly accurate database of homes, businesses, office buildings, barns, cabins, and anything else that could be assessed for property tax.”

According to Friedlander, the data collected allowed the government to fulfill the conditions of a loan it received in 2013 from the EU to bail out the insolvent country, which was cut off from international credit sources.

Ofek is one of the world’s biggest firms in aerial photography and GIS (geospatial information systems). Its photographs have a resolution far greater than even the best civilian-accessible satellites.

“Using our various technologies, including aerial cameras and an airborne Lidar laser mapping system – one of the most accurate in the world – we’ve done hundreds of projects all over the world,” said Friedlander.

Among those projects have been numerous ones in which the company helped prevent natural disasters, including an area of Zambia that was subject to flash flooding

“We used the Lidar system to provide an in-depth topography of the area, down to several centimeters in resolution,” Friedlander said. “By doing so the government was able to see how the floodwaters flowed, and to figure out the cheapest and easiest ways to prevent flooding, such as by leveling parts of the terrain.”

Holon and Bat Yam from the air (Courtesy)
Holon and Bat Yam from the air (Courtesy)

The Lidar mapping used by Ofek is an advanced optical remote-sensing system that uses laser light to sample the surface of the earth, producing highly accurate 3D measurement; the 3D cameras used by the company to develop its aerial maps are installed on one of the company’s fleet of Cessna Grand Caravan planes.

“Many people think that drones are more versatile, but the truth is they could never produce the kinds of results we are getting,” Friedlander said.

The company’s technology even has a security component. There are places where even the most dedicated municipal employee dare not go – but even so, property taxes must be assessed and collected.

But what is a city to do if it’s too dangerous to send a property tax assessor into a neighborhood because they might be subject to violence? Enter Ofek, which provides technology that governments – including Israel’s – have used to get data on politically sensitive areas.

“In Israel, the system has been used to assess property in Arab and ultra-Orthdox areas, where government assessors are often reluctant to enter,” he said.

The system has been used in less sensitive areas as well.

“For the past eight years we have taken aerial photos of Tel Aviv every two weeks,” he added. “The photos are uploaded to the city’s database, which can then determine if someone added to their structures. We don’t decide what is legal or not – we just supply the information.”

Of course, Ofek does other things, like security work – or not. Friedlander would not confirm or deny that the company worked with the IDF or other security forces. “They have, I am sure, sufficient resources of their own. We go where we are needed, and do what is needed,” he said.

But don’t discount the benefit of helping governments collect property tax. Earlier in March, Cyprus was able to repay the International Monetary Fund loan that bailed it out in full.

Did Ofek help Cyprus pay down its debt?

“It’s fair to say we helped set them on the right track,” said Friedlander.

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