Amid Grief, Boston Tech Companies Spot Threats, Analyze Video, Aid Victims
I was having a drink with an entrepreneur friend last Friday, before the bombs. Something he said has been ringing in my head this week.
Instead of going after the next Facebook or Instagram, he said, tech entrepreneurs should be trying to solve people problems. Real societal problems. Like improving elder care, helping families spend their time and money effectively, and producing cleaner energy. Not solving a made-up problem or improving the efficiency of some artificial process. What’s more, he said, there should be ways to solve real problems through crowdsourcing.
How prescient he was.
And while technology might never fully save us from an attack like the one we witnessed this week at the Boston Marathon, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In a tech city as rich as Boston, there are plenty of people going about that very serious business—as well as banding together to support those most affected by the blasts.
In the end, the Marathon bombing will be a case study in whether an individual bent on destruction can remain anonymous in the era of digital surveillance, social media, and crowdsourcing.
Technology comes into play in at least three ways here: intervention (detecting and stopping threats); response (logistics, communication, and medical care); and investigation (finding the perpetrators so they don’t strike again).
And Boston-area tech companies are working in each of these areas (see below). At least one firm is helping the FBI in its current investigation; the company asked not to be identified.
The technologies of interest include: social-media monitoring; software to analyze communications; image and video retrieval and analysis of the crime scene; spectrum-sharing between wireless carriers and first responders; surveillance camera hardware; and smart prosthetic devices for amputees.
Authorities have asked spectators and media at the Marathon to share their pictures and videos, in the hope that clues to the criminal activity will surface. That’s in addition to plenty of security camera footage that is reportedly being pored over frame-by-frame.
Laura Teodosio, the CEO of Boston-based video forensics firm Salient Stills, points out that “authorities will be dealing with various kinds of proprietary video formats” that aren’t necessarily compatible with their computers and video players. They also need ways to quickly search for and download images and videos from social networks, she says. And then they need to stabilize and enhance each frame to be able to extract useful information.
But images and video are only one piece of the puzzle. The trail of Internet communications could hold important clues as well. “After the fact, you can do lots of analysis. Now you’re looking for patterns—you want to find similar groups, similar techniques,” says Christopher Ahlberg, the CEO of Recorded Future, a Web analytics startup in Cambridge, MA. “Big data allows you to comb through and very quickly test a hypothesis.”
Indeed, as the city and nation grapple with another horrific attack, it’s good to remember that some of our best and brightest are working on things that might solve these very real problems.
So here’s a broad rundown of seven Boston-area companies working on the kinds of technologies that could be useful in situations like the Marathon bombing:
—Allied Communications, a Boston startup developing software to manage the wireless spectrum more efficiently. A couple of the firm’s specific technologies have to do with helping 4G carriers share spectrum resources with first responders and government agencies. As everyone knows, the network tends to get overloaded at disaster sites, which greatly hinders rescue and recovery operations.
—iWalk, a Bedford-based prosthetics company that makes a new kind of powered prosthetic foot and ankle for amputees. Founder Hugh Herr, himself a double-lower-leg amputee from a climbing accident in 1982, told WBUR: “If a person has lost a leg in this Boston attack—if they’re motivated and generally healthy and reasonably athletic—they could, given current technology, they could walk or run across the finish line at the Boston Marathon this time next year.”
—Nucleik, a startup out of Harvard University developing software to help police collect and analyze data on criminal networks and behavior. It’s early for Nucleik, which has been involved in a pilot test in Springfield, MA. But it sounds like the company is gaining traction in applying tools from business intelligence and social analytics to policing and security.
—Recorded Future, a Cambridge-based Web analytics company that helps government agencies and financial institutions track online communications and make predictions about things like when and where civil unrest will occur. (Check out this global map of where pressure-cooker bombs have been mentioned in the last three years—it could be a clue to help track where the perpetrator got information.)
—Salient Stills, a Boston company that makes software to help authorities standardize, stabilize, and enhance surveillance video and images. (Interestingly, Salient’s first customer was not the police but the New York Times, which needed to clean up a video image of George W. Bush for the morning after the 2000 election. Then Sep. 11 happened.)
—Scallop Imaging, a security-camera maker that’s part of Boston-based optical tech firm Tenebraex. Scallop makes a wide-angle camera (inspired in part by a scallop’s visual system) that stitches together views from multiple image sensors and produces a smooth, 180-degree video without distortion or delays. The company’s recent technology also works under low-light conditions.
—VideoIQ, a Bedford-based spinout of General Electric’s security division, makes surveillance cameras with built-in video analysis software that can do things like detect motion and track objects (or people) of interest. The company also provides analytics software and hardware to enhance existing security systems and mobile devices.
One more thing, from a Boston techie: “I think this gets solved,” Ahlberg says. “This guy’s not going to get away.”