From Pakistan to the UN, this entrepreneur is harnessing technology to fight terrorism
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Photo Credit: ussocom_ru / Flickr

This founder resigned from his corporate job and returned to Pakistan to form a company called GoFig Solutions, aiming to harness technology to tackle terrorism

Tech in Asia

Poverty. Natural disasters. Terrorism. These are problems that many acknowledge to be in dire need of solutions, but few actually dare to tackle, even at the highest levels of society. Dr. Zeeshan-ul-Hassan Usmani experienced this firsthand as a Pakistani scholar who managed to make his way to the U.S. in the early 2000s, culminating in a PhD in computer science.

Usmani’s work building a personalized recommendation engine for customers, as part of his PhD, received international acclaim and was featured in publications such as The Economist and MIT Tech Review. He spent the next few years working for companies like Citibank and Discover Financials.

It wasn’t enough for him, though. “Having worked in both academia and industries, I always felt that there was something more that I could do, but was not able to because of corporate or academic policies, restrictions, red tape, bureaucracy, and the overall speed of things happening,” he recounts.

Then in 2012, Usmani applied for and received the Eisenhower Fellowship, a program that takes its participants across the U.S. to meet experts and specialists, and ultimately refocus their professional and leadership skills for the betterment of society. It was the perfect opportunity for him to find out how to color outside the box.

Not long after the fellowship was over, Usmani resigned from his corporate job and returned to Pakistan to form a company called GoFig Solutions, aiming to harness technology to tackle terrorism – an especially vexatious issue in his homeland, to say the least.

Gaining traction

This wasn’t the first time that Usmani has tried to mitigate this problem. During the course of his PhD, he had developed algorithms that could measure and quantify the impact of a blast in public spaces, creating a set of recommendations that would save lives and minimize injuries.

“GoFig is short for Go Figure It Out. I wanted to work on the problems that are holding us back as a society, and whose solutions can be found using technology,” he explains. “These are the problems that everybody talks and complains about, cries over, but no one takes the extra step trying to solve them […] For me, humans are and should be the ‘goal’ of technology, and not the profit, or money, or fame, or anything else for that matter.”

What GoFig does is to create software-based counter-terrorism solutions. One of its flagship products was the Blast Sim, which simulates and models suicide bombings for risk mitigation and planning. However, Usmani recounts that the first six months were fairly uneventful for the team.

“We [Usmani and his wife] had to think of creative ways to fund the operations and staff […] We had to sell our car, gold, extra appliances, laptops, and anything we could get our hands on to get some money,” he says.

Things started looking up quickly after Usmani decided to enter a local startup competition called Pakistan Startup Cup in 2013. Having won the top prize, he says that they “started getting clients like rain – from law enforcement agencies to foreign embassies and consulates, from Pakistan to China.” Traction was so high that they could hardly believe it themselves, and the company expanded to 47 employees during that period of time.

Going to the international stage

Despite its roaring success, Usmani wasn’t content to just stop there. “If I can save and change the lives of people all around the world, why should I restrict myself to Pakistan?” he asked himself. “We calculated how many lives we could improve, save, and touch using our work during the course of our lifetime, and the difference between choosing to remain in Pakistan and going global was to the order of 200, so we decided to exit and go global.”

In order to do this, Usmani reached out to Rob Burns, whom he had met during the Eisenhower Fellowship. Both of them shared the same vision of improving the lives of people using technology. “We ended up working together for two years, exploring how the technologies that we had developed at GoFig could be used for commercial clients and have a global impact,” he says.

This partnership became the foundation for PredictifyMe, which was launched in 2014 and subsequently acquired GoFig. The aim for PredictifyMe remained the same as GoFig’s, except that it was on a global scale.

Since then, the company has released another counter-terrorism product called Soothsayer, a prediction software that forecasts terrorist activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq based on an algorithm called the “Migration of Terror.” According to the website, it “generates a list of cities and locations most probable to witness a suicide bombing in the next seven days, with 72 percent accuracy so far.”

PredictifyMe is taking its brand of counter-terrorism to the international level. Most recently, Soothsayer, together with SecureSim – the Blast Sim’s older cousin – were part of a joint effort with the United Nations to improve the security of schools in violence-ridden countries.

Zeeshan-ul-Hassan Usmani and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown forging a partnership.

“Working with our advisors, we had determined that the United Nations was where we could have a positive impact on the most number of lives,” Usmani explains, and adds:

Through a set of conversations, we determined former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown [UN special envoy for global education] and his Safe Schools Initiative was the optimal conduit for our flagship products. We then worked with Prime Minister Brown’s team to structure a rollout plan and announce this initiative […] Pakistan’s program has been launched, and we are looking forward to go to Lebanon, Nigeria, and West Africa pretty soon.

Usmani tells Tech in Asia that they are already working on the next product. Named Hourglass, it “sifts through half a million open data sources using our proprietary technology and algorithms to create a virtual world with simulated human beings, who will generate their own artificial big data using behavioral models.”

The ultimate aim is to predict day-to-day happenings in the next five to ten years, and so allow organizations “to learn, adjust, and softly intervene in the current system to achieve the target stage.” The initial versions of Hourglass will focus on the healthcare, insurance, education, and retail industries.

With its latest product, Usmani admits that PredictifyMe is moving away from creating products focusing specifically on counter-terrorism. “We like to see how the technology and pattern mining algorithms we have built can be used for other causes – like education, poverty, governance, transparency, and other commercial businesses – and so be able to scale exponentially,” he explains.

Editing by Malavika Velayanikal and Steven Millward

This post was originally published on Tech in Asia

Featured Image Credit: ussocom_ru / Flickr

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Daniel Tay

About Daniel Tay

Daniel is a writer based in the sunny island of Singapore. He mainly covers the tech scene in Singapore for Tech in Asia, but his byline can be found in a variety of publications and blogs, including Social Media Today, Business2Community, Canva and Unbounce. He is madly passionate about entrepreneurship, marketing, and productivity.

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