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Maury Blackman Takes Leadership of International Data-Gathering Startup

The company, Premise, has a worldwide network of contributors it pays to gather data, as well as machine learning capabilities set up to vet the data as it comes in.

by / February 6, 2018

Maury Blackman, the former chief executive officer of Accela turned venture capitalist, will lead an international data company as it begins to drive for more business in the U.S.

Blackman is the new president and CEO of Premise Data, a San Francisco-based company that’s been around since 2012. The company has made a name for itself internationally by crowdsourcing the process of gathering data. Over the years it has built up networks of contributors — often paid — who will collect information and report it through a mobile app.

One example: food prices. The company asked users to submit photos of food prices in several countries, then published that information through the Bloomberg Terminal, creating economic indices to be tracked over time.

There are a lot of potential government applications as well, and Blackman has built a career on working with government. Essentially, the Premise app lets government turn citizens into a data-gathering workforce. A government can publish tasks and then put money (or other kinds of reward) out for people to claim once they’ve completed the task.

It’s a system designed to fit the imagination, so its potential applications are extremely broad. Governments have used the platform to ask citizens how they feel about certain issues, and they’ve used it for a kind of reverse 311-style concept where citizens can report problems in detail. In Colombia, public health workers are using Premise to gather better on-the-ground data about the spread of the Zika virus.

“Whether it’s a government asset, a food staple, whatever the object is, that user will be able to provide their perspective on it,” he said.

Performing inventory assessments is another possible application. Imagine a city that’s under a court order to fix sidewalks and ramps that aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A network of contributors could be paid, through the app, to go out and assess that infrastructure, complete with photos and geotagging.

There’s built-in functionality to make submissions more useful, too. An administrator can set out a path for a participant to walk along, and the mobile app will make sure they stick to that path. Or they can require a participant to submit a certain number of photos of certain objects. They can publish tasks in multiple languages, and they can geotag tasks to attract people who are already nearby to undertake whatever the administrator wants to inspect.

If that sounds like a good way to attract scammers, that’s because it is. People have “spoofed” the GPS trackers on their phones to make it appear like they’re in a location they aren’t, and they’ve tried submitting the same photo over and over again to meet a task’s requirements, and so on.

But the company has built up a portfolio of ways to deal with it, and they’ve even automated large parts of the quality control process. Machine learning can detect what objects are in pictures to make sure that a person isn’t submitting the same photo multiple times. The company can track a phone’s location in multiple ways in order to spot GPS discrepancies, and it can measure how long it took somebody to complete a task in case someone decides to take a shortcut.

The system can also generate new ways government can use the app, by “listening” to social media to identify events as they unfold, or by allowing participants to submit information independent of tasks that have already been created. That way, a city could learn about a protest from a person passing by on the street, and then send more people over to get a better sense of what’s happening.

“It’s predictive, it’s smart, it’s proactive instead of reactive,” Blackman said.

Aside from Blackman, Premise has also pulled in other talent from Accela, Facebook and the Climate Corporation. And it’s launching its effort to expand in the U.S. with financial backing from some seriously big investors: Andreessen Horowitz, Social Capital and Google Ventures among them. Altogether, the company has raised $61 million through a Series C round, according to Crunchbase.

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Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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