A crys­tal ball? No, just big data

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By David Pier­son

LAS VE­GAS— A dozen mas­sive tele­vi­sion screens hang in­side Banjo’s war room in a non­de­script of­fice park here beam­ing streams of so­cial media data, 24-hour news net­works and an an­i­mated, spin­ning globe high­light­ing hot spots of ac­tiv­ity around theworld.

From this nerve cen­ter, which evokes equal parts “Dr. Strangelove” and Dun­der Mif­flin from “The Of­fice,” a team of em­ploy­ees be­hind com­puter ter­mi­nals is do­ing some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary with the bil­lions of public so­cial media posts and other data points spewed onto the In­ter­net each day: learn­ing about events in real time be­fore al­most any­one else.

Banjo founder and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Damien Pat­ton calls the tech­nol­ogy the crys­tal ball, and clients are pay­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars a year for sub­scrip­tions. They in­clude any­one whose com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage is mea­sured in sec­onds: fi­nan­cial ser­vice com­pa­nies hop­ing to get an edge on trades, con­sumer brands like Bud Light look­ing for the latest meme about their beer and ma­jor media net­works such as ABC and Fox ea­ger to break news.

The ubiq­uity of cell­phone cam­eras has pro­vided a win­dow onto all corners of the globe. But Banjo’s pow­er­ful tech­nol­ogy is able to fil­ter through the noise, com­bin­ing lo­ca­tion, time and an un­canny abil­ity to

Banjo, read im­ages to de­ter­mine whether some­thing un­usual is hap­pen­ing.

Staffers in Las Ve­gas will fact-check in­for­ma­tion be­fore pack­ag­ing it to clients.

Banjo’s al­go­rithm alerted the com­pany to the down­ing of a Malaysian jet­liner mo­ments af­ter it hit the ground in Ukraine last year, de­tect­ing a pic­ture of aplane crash posted with­out words on the Rus­sian so­cial net­work Vkon­takte.

A pho­to­graph of blood­ied pas­sen­gers in­side a train car posted on Twit­ter im­me­di­ately tipped Banjo off to an Am­trak de­rail­ment in Philadelphia in May. Within five min­utes, a lo­cal NBC af­fil­i­ate and Banjo client posted video of the in­ci­dent online.

And in Jan­uary, Ama­zon shares fell af­ter Banjo quickly learned through a posted pic­ture of a fire at one of the tech gi­ant’s data cen­ters in Vir­ginia and in­formed a lo­cal news sta­tion.

“No fire en­gine was even there yet,” said Pat­ton, who boasts that his im­age-recog­ni­tion soft­ware knows the dif­fer­ence be­tween floods and lakes, smoke and clouds, and protests and or­di­nary crowds.

Launched in 2011, Banjo was orig­i­nally de­signed as a con­sumer app.

But the com­pany ex­panded its of­fer­ing to a sub­scrip­tion model in 2013 af­ter the Bos­ton Marathon bomb­ing. The at­tack opened Pat­ton’s eyes to the po­ten­tial of Banjo’s tech­nol­ogy af­ter see­ing how quickly his team could pull to­gether photos from the scene and de­ter­mine what caused the car­nage. Banjo En­ter­prise, the sub­scrip­tion part of the busi­ness, is the com­pany’s main fo­cus to­day.

The bedrock of Banjo’s data re­mains the app. That’s be­cause in lieu of reg­is­ter­ing their names, users are asked to share ac­cess to their so­cial media ac­counts, be it In­sta­gram, Twit­ter or China’s Weibo. As a re­sult, Ban­jo­can peer into more than 1.2 bil­lion public so­cial media ac­counts. In ad­di­tion to the app, Banjo inked agree­ments for di­rect ac­cess to sev­eral so­cial net­works, although the com­pany won’t dis­close which ones.

The com­bi­na­tion of net­works is nec­es­sary to col­lect enough data. It’s also what pre­vents a so­cial media com­pany like Twit­ter from sim­ply cre­at­ing a ri­val to Banjo, Pat­ton said.

Pre­sented with all that in­for­ma­tion, Banjo’s com­put­ers are now mak­ing a quadrillion com­pu­ta­tions ev­ery 10 sec­onds. Pat­ton be­lieves that they will be 10 times faster in the com­ing months.

Years of data min­ing has al­lowed the com­pany to map theworld into a grid made of 35 bil­lion squares. When posts emerge from one of those squares that de­vi­ate from the norm, like a build­ing fire or earth­quake, it in­stantly lets em­ploy­ees know in the Las Ve­gas con­trol room. The team there then de­ter­mines which clients to alert, depend­ing on the mag­ni­tude and lo­ca­tion of the news.

It’s a ser­vice that elic­its awe and a touch of un­ease in a Big Brother sort of way. Banjo’s om­nipresent eye could one day save lives dur­ing nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, pre­pare hos­pi­tals shortly af­tera ma­jor in­ci­dent or aid in­sur­ance claims and po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tions, Pat­ton said.

“What we have from a tech­nol­ogy stand­point is like the found­ing of elec­tric­ity,” said Pat­ton, 42, a Navy vet­eran prone to hard stares who lives up ev­ery bit to the adage about sailors and salty lan­guage. “It’s that pro­found. We are not go­ing to be­come the light bulb man­u­fac­tur­ers our­selves, butwe are go­ing toem­power peo­ple to build light bulbs on top of Banjo.”

But that same tech­nol­ogy, in the wrong hands, could weaken pri­vacy, broaden state sur­veil­lance and snuff out a protest in places like China be­fore it gets too big.

Banjo’s tech­nol­ogy comes at a time of great ad­vance­ment in im­age recog­ni­tion, an area of re­search also known as con­vo­lu­tional neu­ral net­works. It’s the science that al­lows Face­book to rec­og­nize faces or Google’s com­put­ers to de­scribe scenes in a pho­to­graph.

Give a com­puter enough im­ages to ab­sorb, and it can be­gin clas­si­fy­ing the dif­fer­ences and sim­i­lar­i­ties. In­creased com­pu­ta­tional power the last few years has al­lowed re­searchers to in­no­vate even faster.

What sets Banjo apart in this field, observers say, is that it has come up with a tan­gi­ble busi­ness.

“I see most start-ups of­fer­ing vis­ual recog­ni­tion as just a ser­vice,” said Aditya Khosla, a re­searcher at MIT’s Com­puter Science and Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence Lab. “They ask you to give them an im­age and they’ll try and rec­og­nize it in­stead of say­ing what ex­actly you can do with it that is cool and gives you value. Banjo seems to me like it’s go­ing a step fur­ther in terms of cre­at­ing value.”

Big tech com­pa­nies too are try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with all their con­tent and data. Last week, YouTube said itwas rolling out a newswire ser­vice, a cu­rated feed of the most news­wor­thy videos posted on its site.

Banjo’s model has im­pressed in­vestors like Ja­pan’s Soft­Bank, which pro­vided $100 mil­lion in fund­ing ear­lier this year; that brought its to­tal fund­ing to $121 mil­lion (Pat­ton said Banjo isn’t mak­ing a profit, choos­ing in­stead to rein­vest most ev­ery­thing into scal­ing up).

Banjo main­tains its head­quar­ters in Red­wood City, Calif., but Pat­ton chose his cur­rent home of Las Ve­gas, a bur­geon­ing tech com­mu­nity, for his con­trol cen­ter be­cause clients and in­vestors of­ten pass through.

Chief among Pat­ton’s con­cerns is re­as­sur­ing users that Banjo isn’t do­ing any­thing un­sa­vory with its mas­sive stores of data.

Tech com­pa­nies such as Face­book and Uber have been crit­i­cized in the past for abus­ing user in­for­ma­tion, con­tribut­ing to­ward a cli­mate of mis­trust in the dig­i­tal age.

Ex­perts say tech com­pa­nies like Banjo that have the abil­ity to lo­cate mil­lions of peo­ple in real time have to demon­strate that they are sen­si­tive to pri­vacy con­cerns, es­pe­cially af­ter for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den re­vealed just how vul­ner­a­ble most peo­ple are, said Chip Pitts, a lec­turer of law at Stan­ford Law School and for­mer chief le­gal of­fi­cer for Nokia.

“Tech­nol­ogy is neu­tral but it can be used for evil,” Pitts said. “Youneed to build up­front pro­tec­tions.”

Pat­ton says Banjo doesn’t use any pri­vate data. If some­one changes their set­tings on In­sta­gram to pri­vate, for ex­am­ple, Banjo has writ­ten and patented code that erases all their pre­vi­ous posts.

“Any ser­vice that touches lo­ca­tion has to think of their so­cial com­pact with users and pro­tect their pri­vacy,” said John Mal­loy, gen­eral part­ner and co-founder of BlueRun Ven­tures, Banjo’s big­gest in­vestor share­holder. “Banjo built that into the sys­tem.”

Pat­ton said he has been ap­proached by gov­ern­ment agen­cies about his tech­nol­ogy, but cur­rently has no in­ter­est in work­ing with them, largely be­cause of public per­cep­tion.

“I have to hold my­self ac­count­able and re­spon­si­ble,” he said. “And you put your­self out there say­ing, ‘This is how I per­son­ally be­lieve in pri­vacy.’ ”

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

BANJO FOUNDER and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Damien Pat­ton talks with em­ploy­ees at the In­neva­tion Cen­ter in Las Ve­gas.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

BANJO’S Damien Pat­ton calls his firm’s tech­nol­ogy the crys­tal ball, and clients are pay­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars a year for sub­scrip­tions.

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