Redefining Security Threat in the COVID-19 Era: An Interview with Fellow Cory Siskind
From increasing online presences and remote collaboration, to work furloughs, bootstrapping, and shuttering doors, the world’s most promising startups are scrambling to withstand the disruption of COVID-19. But weathering the most intense months of restrictions and economic turmoil through temporary measures may not be enough. Many, if not most, startups’ survival will depend on making fundamental changes to the way they do business, even if their business model had been succeeding before the outbreak. This is especially true of entrepreneurs in emerging markets, whose success as business leaders depends on their unwavering spirit of innovation, perseverance, and ability to see opportunities within the myriad challenges they face.
Since launching in April 2018, Base Operations has been developing its capacity to aggregate and map threat data in order to help companies “keep their global workforce and operations secure.” When the current outbreak emerged, Base Operations immediately put their talents to use by developing their COVID19 Resource Platform, a real-time mapping tool that displays information on diagnoses, deaths, and recovered cases. Since launching the platform, which they have made free to the public, Base Operations has added data on the location of testing sites, hospital beds, ICU beds, and official responses from local authorities, with plans to add new information and features over the coming weeks.
Founder Cory Siskind, a 2016-18 Fellow within the Legatum Center, has been carefully guiding her company through a journey to determine the most effective application of their core skill set. As recently as October of last year, for instance, around the time Base Operations was closing a $1M pre-seed funding round, they had been focusing on products that could help multinational corporations improve their crisis management response (you can read an account of their successful performance in an earthquake simulation here).
Through the process of piloting crisis management features with three Fortune 500 companies, however, they discovered an even more compelling pain point: a need to understand threats in emerging markets down to the street-level. This led Base Operations to create their Micro-Intelligence platform to provide security professionals at multinationals with a more granular, street-level threat analysis. By aggregating and mapping crime data from crowdsourced reports, news, social media, and various other sources, the platform can, for example, help employees traveling in emerging marketsto make informed, real-time decisions in order to safely navigatean unfamiliar environment, or help security professionals allocate their resources within emerging markets more effectively.
Before COVID-19, the Micro-Intelligence platform focused largely on crime data as it pertains to business travel security, but the outbreak is compelling Base Operations toward another pivot, this time guided by a process Siskind calls “expanding our view of threat”—and the COVID19 Resource Platform is the first step.
The evolution of Base Operations’ model represents the innovative thinking and capacity to view challenges as opportunities that the Legatum Center strives to study, disseminate, and cultivate. Siskind sat down with the us to discuss the new platform and how Base Operations has responded to the outbreak:
Before we get to the new platform you launched, can you give us a broad overview of how COVID-19 has impacted Base Operations?
Sure. I think in many ways, we are pretty lucky. Currently Base Operations has five full-time employees and three interns, and we’re already mostly distributed—I’m in D.C., Scott’s in Boston, we have team members in Mexico, Belarus—so we were already well accustomed to things like Zoom stand-up meetings. We also, like so many other startups, run a pretty tight ship, so while larger companies are struggling to cut budgets, we did not have to make massive adjustments.
Was there a particular day, or moment, you realized the pandemic wouldn’t just be disruptive but would significantly change how you did business?
I think as humans we’re really good at linear thinking, but we’re not as good at exponential thinking, and that makes processing something like COVID-19 difficult. We saw there were only X number of cases, we compared it to other things, etc., so at first we just weren’t getting that this outbreak would have an exponential impact, and when we finally did get it, it happened all at once. We realized this won’t just change our meeting cadence, this is something that we need to address in our product too.
I realized that we are really good at two things: aggregating disparate data sets that don’t necessarily make sense together, and then visualizing them in a way that does make sense. Lately we’d been focused mainly on crime-based threats to businesses in emerging markets, but we realized we could apply our same methodology to all these disparate data sets coming in around COVID-19. We had some initial hypotheses around what would be most helpful, but we also reached out to our network of security professionals and our experts committee and asked, “What do you need right now? How can we help?” And the response we got is, “There’s a bunch of information, but it’s all over the place. I just want everything in one place.” So, that’s what we built. Now security professionals, or anybody else, can view mapped data on diagnoses and deaths, locations of ICU beds and testing sites, updates from local authorities, etc.
We also wanted to make this resource free. We didn’t have a plan worked out for exactly how to use this approach to further the business, but it just felt like something that we were in a unique position to do.
You say that you didn’t have a plan worked out for how to use this to further the business. Is that still the case?
We’re exploring a lot of possibilities, but it’s too early to say. Our intention is that the COVID-19 Platform will remain a free resource, and our Micro-Intelligence platform is still our core business, even though COVID-19 has us thinking about it in new ways.
Can you tell us more about the Micro-Intelligence platform? What was the product—or intended product—before the outbreak, and how has that changed?
After piloting our crisis management products with three customers, we had a lot of discussions and determined what these multinationals were actually most interested in was street-level threat assessments in emerging markets. That’s the core of our Micro-Intelligence platform. It supports companies in two arenas: travel security and threat analysis. The travel security part is obviously less of a priority during lockdown conditions, but the part that has to do with threat analysis—helping companies appropriately staff up security for different retail locations, or deciding where to build, or figuring out how to optimize insurance premiums in different neighborhoods, helping event companies figure out when and where to plan events—all of that is still a priority. We’ve developed latitude-and-longitude-based heat maps. We also have a feature where you can click on a micro-neighborhood of six blocks and break down crime rates into different categories, for example, to see that a certain area is a low risk for fraud but high risk for assault. Those kinds of analyses are still core to our platform, and we’re still in conversations with companies about piloting them. International business travel may have slowed down, at least for now, but international business isn’t going anywhere.
So how has COVID-19 changed what you’re doing with the platform?
We incorporated COVID-19 information in part to connect with and support our potential customers, but also to move us into this expanded threat intelligence space. Previously we really focused on crime, but threats take many forms, and COVID-19 has made that readily apparent. So, we’re still looking at crime, but we’re also starting to explore the public health space, looking at other data sets that we can incorporate to create a more comprehensive view of what it means to have your global operations or workforce threatened.
You wrote a blog post recently using Base Operations maps to illustrate how lockdown conditions have actually led to a sharp decrease in city crime. Does that kind of interaction factor into the comprehensive view you’re trying to adopt?
Yes. That was an interesting analysis for us to do because we’re uniquely placed at this intersection of threat. In the short-term, the decrease in crime does seem like a silver lining—in the same way that air quality in Los Angeles is the best it has ever been in the last 40 years—but it’s something we’ll continue to monitor closely, because that crime trend could easily reverse as people find themselves in increasingly desperate situations, for instance, if resources are not adequately distributed to the millions of newly unemployed. But yes, we’re definitely aiming to incorporate more of that kind of trend analysis into our Micro-Intelligence platform.
Last question, and we realize these may change, but right now what would you say are your three-month goals for the company?
Three-month goals? The first, I would say, is to incorporate a more comprehensive analysis of threat into our platform, as we’ve discussed.
Second would be to expand geographically. In the first phase of Base Operations, we really focused on Latin America, specifically Mexico, and perfected the model there. This past year we have exploded our map. We’re now operating in 55 cities and 12 countries, and those numbers increase every month. We’re devoting a lot of effort to expanding even faster.
Third is to develop new channel partnerships. The COVID-19 crisis has inspired us to work more collaboratively with companies that we previously viewed as competitors in order to figure out if we can provide a united offering. What Base Operations does is really unique in the security market, so I’m looking at other companies in the space that have complimentary offerings—like travel tracking or risk insurance—and seeing if there’s a way we can work together to provide people with a single pane of glass.