Finding the Right Needle in the Right Haystack

by Carl Kotala

As Modus Operandi President Rick McNeight likes to say, the defense company’s software doesn’t just find a needle in a haystack, it finds the right needle in the right haystack.

The Melbourne-based company has developed a way to mine specific pieces of data from a host of sources – everything from social media to bank records, e-commerce and intelligence information reports – and provide actionable intelligence to military analysts.

The software can do in minutes what it would take an analyst weeks to research considering the massive volumes of data involved. “It’s almost like you’re doing a Google search, but it’s far more powerful,” McNeight explained. “You can’t use Google across the government databases.”

Founded in 1984, the company was originally known as Software Productivity Solutions Inc. It started out providing technology for defense research labs, but in 1998 its leaders decided to venture into the commercial market. It was renamed Modus Operandi Inc. following a merger and began working with banks, insurance companies and even Florida
Power & Light.

Re-Fitting, Re-Focusing

The commercial market became roughly half of the company’s business, but that all changed in 2001 when the commercial bubble burst. “The wheels kind of fell off the commercial business, so we decided to exit that and kind of start it over,” said CEO Peter Dyson, an original company founder.

That meant a full-time return to defense-oriented business. When McNeight came on board in 2006, Modus Operandi began to target a more narrow market so it could begin to build depth in understanding the customer’s problems and needs, and of course, how to solve them. Deciding to concentrate on the intelligence base, they hired former military intelligence officers who could not only help them understand what the analysts were looking for, but also be a valuable asset when talking to potential clients.

The company also took great advantage of the government’s Small Business Innovative Research program (SBIR). “Once we decided to focus (on this particular area), then how do we find work that matches that focus?” McNeight asked. “This program is very interesting because each of the agencies, over a certain size, have to set 2-1/2 to 3 percent of its budget aside for this (SBIR) program. What they do is put out abstracts requesting research being done in specific areas.”

Modus Operandi targeted the projects that not only fit its talent base, but also followed the company’s mission to create cutting-edge technology. “We’ve been very successful in that program,” McNeight said. “As a matter of fact, over the past 10 years, we’ve won over $40 million in business in the SBIR program.”

It’s A Matter of Semantics

With that backing, Modus Operandi has developed semantic software that can comb through a multitude of data from a host of different sources and identify key areas of information. The parameters are set by the analyst. “Usually the customer, depending on the mission, has certain things they’re looking for,” Dyson said. “So a lot of what we’re doing is enabling that by making the data sources accessible and searchable.”

“(Government agencies) have thousands of different legacy systems and data sources that are all little stovepipes of information. A lot of it is knocking down the barriers to accessibility of that information. Our specialization is what we call ‘semantic technology,’ which is just a way of making the data smarter. We enrich the data with various tags to make it easier to find.”

The software also provides what McNeight called “providence,” which allows the analyst to go back and see where the source of that information came from to determine how credible it is. What happens next is up to the analyst, not the software.

“We don’t make decisions,” McNeight explained. “We just help (the analyst) to make decisions and to find the right data. He may only be interested in a certain person in a certain location at a certain time. We can bring that back to him across multiple databases.”


Growth in Personnel and Products

Modus Operandi has experienced tremendous growth recently, including hiring 40 new employees in the past year to double the number of the current staff. The company also has some big projects in the works, including a new Navy research contract that will create a “crowdsourcing” analysis system, which will analyze social media and feed information to emergency response teams dealing with disasters, crowd uprisings, fires, crimes and a host of other crises. Dyson said the technology could be ready in two years.

The company is also testing a new product, called “Blade,” which essentially puts a visual wrapper around its core search technology. “It provides all the visualization to the analyst, all the different ways they can display the data. One of the ways is that you have a person and connectors to all the little circles around him — people he’s associated with, their locations or organizations — and then you can click on those and they expand out (to see who else is in that organization),” said Dyson.

“Those visualization tools are something we’re now wrapping this with, along with more sophisticated search capabilities.” While the company has certainly come a long way since it essentially re-invented itself 10 years ago, future projects like Blade and the crowdsourcing Navy contract have the potential to take Modus Operandi to even greater heights.

“These are very exciting times for our company,” Dyson said. “Our team is very energized right now. In spite of the challenges of the federal budget sequester, we have been posting solid orders and good revenue growth. We have a lot of great talent on the team right now. Any success that Rick or I can point to is thanks to the efforts of our people.

Said Dyson, “Basically we have a convergence of a few key factors that gives us great confidence in the future — the talent and dedication of our people, a market need for innovative technology to tame the big data tsunami, and a critical mass of customer funding to build out and deploy our technology solution.”