During a live United Nations webcast
Wednesday, the Raleigh-based founders of PredictifyMe
were presented as a key big data partner for an initiative to stop suicide bombings and make schools safer in Pakistan.
Former British Prime Minister and now UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown announced a public-private partnership to provide the startup's software to 1,000 Pakistani schools to help assess the risk of terrorist attacks, prepare against them and facilitate communication between schools and officials to prevent bombings. Eventually, the program could expand to the rest of Pakistan's 200,000 schools and to South Sudan, Lebanon and other countries.
Bombings happen about every other day in Pakistan and schools are often the target.
According to Brown, the UN has neglected the issue "at our peril." He added, "we must build more innovative partnerships to involve tech companies, businesses, foundations and governments to deliver on this Safe Schools initiative (...) It is our moral duty to make sure that every single child in the world can enjoy the basic right to education free of terror, free of fear and with the support of the international community."
Burns told me Monday that the relationship with the UN began in September—an advisor sits on a UN committee and had notified the organization about the startup. PredictifyMe put together a proposal to donate the software and training time to the UN and a Pakistani NGO. Burns admits he didn't expect the relationship to move forward so quickly.
But then Brown announced an initiative around safe schools in Pakistan. And things escalated quick.
"It was fortuitous," co-founder Rob Burns told me Monday. "We happen to have the largest database in the world of injury patterns from suicide bombings."
The relationship is two-fold. PredictifyMe software called Secure Sim helps simulate situations to assess risks like the explosiveness of building materials and the layout of classrooms (using CAD drawings). It determines how prepared a school is to handle a bombing or attack and gives recommendations to implement better safety strategies. A second software platform called Soothsayer takes geosocial indicators and predicts in real-time when a school is at risk. It notifies authorities so they can react by putting more security in place or by trying to identify the bombers. According to Burns, the software predicts a bombing within three days and with 94 percent accuracy.
Here's a talk co-founder Zeeshan-Ul-Hassan Usmani gave last year at Research Triangle Park explaining the technology and how he collected and analyzed the data:
So, who's behind PredictifyMe?
Burns spent years at the fast-growing Washington D.C. technology research firm, Lux Research, before his work volunteering in inner city schools led him to apply to the Eisenhower Fellowship program in 2010. The 62-year-old leadership exchange program sends up to 25 mid-career high-achieving executives from around the world on a several week journey to meet with experts related to project they'll pursue upon their return—Burns wanted to learn how communities in China and Malaysia treat at-risk minority youth, in hopes of bringing lessons back to the United States. He found an even more powerful tool in his now co-founder—and a connection to Raleigh.
The fellowship program has deep ties to North Carolina. Our state was the first in the nation, in 1999, to establish a regional initiative in which recruitment of Eisenhower fellows was focused on the Triangle and the region agreed to host international fellows in the years to follow. Recruitment later focused also in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis but in 2012, expanded nationally.
Burns and Usmani met as fellows and stayed in touch. After the fellowship, Burns moved to New York City to work for the publicly-traded venture capital firm Harris & Harris Group. He also joined the board of directors of the statewide North Carolina Center for Innovation Network. In 2014, he began talks with Usmani about starting a company. He then set up an international development consulting company called Grundy Burns in Raleigh in August 2014, leaving his job in New York soon after to pursue the business full-time. Usmani and a third co-founder, Marcy Bucci, more recently joined him in new office space at American Underground in Raleigh.
Usmani's software is the company's secret sauce. The Pakistani native is a Fulbright Scholar who holds a PhD in computer science. After his Eisenhower fellowship, he returned to his software development company Go-Fig Solutions to develop software to help solve large societal problems like terrorism. PredictifyMe acquired Go-Fig in November 2014, moving the headquarters to Raleigh but maintaining a staff of 23 in Pakistan.
Our conversation was cut short before Burns could tell me what specifically brought him to North Carolina. But it appears the Eisenhower connection is a strong one. The company has also deployed its software in Wake County to determine various risk factors, like the number of teenage pregnancies in 2016. Here's a talk Burns recently gave at RTP's 1 Million Cups event:
Additional business lines will be pursued as PredictifyMe expands. They expect retail companies to want help understanding consumer behavior and insurance companies to use a more analytical way of calculating the risk of a potential customer before initiating a policy.
With the 130,000 datasets available on Data.gov and about 2,000 at Healthdata.gov in the U.S. alone, a lot of data can be grabbed and crunched to begin to isolate—and with extreme accuracy, predict—the behavior of any individual, from Raleigh to Pakistan, Burns says.