Generation Start-up: How Palestine's RedCrow Intelligence is helping users navigate flash points
The start-up's ambitious expansion plans will take shape at Abu Dhabi's Hub71 beginning next year
On December 6, 2017, US President Donald Trump formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, breaking from the policy of his predecessors and bringing rebukes from international leaders, who called it a major setback to peace talks. The controversial decision sparked violent clashes the next day in the occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and at Israel’s eight metre-high wall that runs across the 1949 armistice line.
That night was among the busiest for founders of RedCrow Intelligence, Hussein Nasser-Eddin, Laila Akel and Tayeb Akel.
“We needed to provide our clients with a forecast of what will happen tomorrow. Of what exactly they will confront in Tel Aviv, in Gaza and in the West Bank in the morning,” Mr Nasser-Eddin tells The National.
From the company’s office in Ramallah, the team pulled together data points on security threats over the previous two years, selecting “triggers” it believed were similar to the security uncertainty Palestinians were then confronting. Using software, RedCrow assessed internet chatter from social media, news outlets and the RSS feeds of non-governmental organisations and security agencies to map hotspots.
They sent these maps to their clients, primarily USAID-sponsored NGOs and diplomatic delegations, showing where streets were likely to be closed and at what times, and where violence was expected.
The reality on the ground the next day was very close to what RedCrow forecast.
“The feedback from clients was that it was very useful, circulated in a timely manner and allowed them to address threats in a practical way,” says Mr Nasser-Eddin.
The start-up provides precise intelligence in real time to anticipate security risks by collecting and analysing data during critical situations in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.
To do this, RedCrow monitors Facebook, Twitter, messaging app Telegram, public communiques from the UN, Red Cross, security services and mainstream media. Its research team is always looking for new online sources to monitor. Its software picks up keywords and filters content to generate alerts to clients about security threats, road closures or man-made or natural disasters.
“Imagine a mobile app that can tell you what is happening when it is happening,” says Laila, who is RedCrow’s chief operating officer.
“Whoever is speaking on the internet we want to hear them.” The app can be used to navigate around choke points in areas of tension or outright conflict, such as travelling between Ramallah and Jerusalem, or between Jordan and Syria. RedCrow also provides threat level assessments in the areas in which it operates, helping businesses, NGOs and diplomatic delegations’ site office employees navigate the situation.
The UN Department of Safety and Security has a similar product it offers for free, which the RedCrow team considers as the industry standard.
“That’s what we wanted to beat,” Mr Nasser-Eddin says.
Laila estimates RedCrow’s alerts to threats are about 45 minutes faster than the closest competition.
But that night in December two years ago was a breakthrough. Rather than report situations as they were happening, RedCrow saw an opportunity to use technology to get one step ahead.
The team’s on-the-ground knowledge of their homeland Palestine, as well as a trove of data from the previous two years, gave them the ability to predict what would happen. But the team believes this type of predictive analysis could be offered elsewhere in the Middle East.
“Our end goal is to start forecasting potential events,” says Mr Nasser-Eddin.
Today, the four-year-old start-up is raising $1.6 million (Dh5.9m) from venture capital companies to invest in artificial intelligence and data science.
RedCrow was accepted into Abu Dhabi’s Hub71 start-up incentive programme, and will be making the emirate its home base to expand and improve its product in the coming year.
“We’re extremely proud to see global start-ups of this calibre choose Abu Dhabi as their launchpad for regional expansion,” says Ahmad Alwan, head of strategy and corporate development at Hub71. “These founders are here to find the best engineers and secure smart funding to enable them to dream big.”
RedCrow Intelligence is aiming to close an investment round to improve its technology and cover more countries in the Middle East and North Africa over the next 18 months.
Mr Nasser-Eddin estimates covering all of the Mena region with its technology would increase revenue tenfold if RedCrow sells a regional package to existing clients rather than a localised offering. Annual costs for a client in Palestine are around $14,000 (Dh36,730), with some tailored services.
“Humans are not bold enough to make million-dollar decisions when in crisis,” says Mr Nasser-Eddin, who holds two graduate degrees in homeland security and Middle East politics. “When to withdraw from stock markets, when to leave the country”, people are often unable to decide at the right moment, he adds.
While studying, Mr Nasser-Eddin considered this idea of automating intelligence for security and diplomatic purposes, and began discussing it with his friends, brother-sister Tayeb and Laila Akel, in 2014.
Mr Nasser-Eddin had worked in private security to diplomatic delegations in Palestine and had started working on another project he founded with family members for physical security in Palestine and Jordan. But he wanted to build something himself.
Tayeb has a background in web development and computer science. Laila, in addition to community development, had helped the Visit Palestine state tourism website grow its monthly web hits to eight million from 3,000 while working at an ad agency.
That experience taught her a valuable lesson: the importance of monetising growth.
While Mr Nasser-Eddin designed the security products and concepts, Tayeb set to work building them and Laila grappled with how to make money from their services.
The Canadian Embassy was among the first to use their app, which RedCrow gave to them for free in the summer of 2015 in exchange for a monthly feedback.
At that stage, the company was sending simple text message alerts about security incidents. The embassy told them that without a map, they were getting confused about areas with similar names.
RedCrow gathered feedback from the embassy for a year, and what they learnt from their first customer helped start generating revenue by the end of 2015.
By early 2017, RedCrow had European Union and USAID contractors, NGOs and embassy delegations signed on as customers.
The association with USAID, the American foreign civilian aid agency, provided some legitimacy, which attracted more customers, totalling 30 today.
For Mr Nasser-Eddin, RedCrow walks a fine line to get it right wherever it goes.
Emphasise technology too much, and they will miss local nuances. But get too preoccupied with the human side, and the technology will fall short, he says.
“Either way, using data aggregator from London or New York that are just collecting tweets from Egypt will not really show you what is really going on,” he says. “If you are monitoring to save people’s lives, you really need on-the-ground intel.”
Q&A with RedCrow Intelligence co-founder and chief operating officer, Laila Akel
What successful start-up do you wish you had started?
Twitter, a smart and simple concept with a powerful effect.
What new skills have you learnt from launching your venture?
Building a company from scratch is a process of practical knowledge, where you learn how to develop your decision-making process, emotional intelligence and crisis management rationality. These all come through racing time to raise funds, build the company and generate revenue throughout the year.
If you could start RedCrow all over again, what would you do differently?
Investment raising strategy: we would have bootstrapped in the early stage for longer, as we recognised later that we could have generated revenue earlier if we focused on that, and pushing fundraising rounds for later.
What is your next milestone for RedCrow?
Raising $1.6 million by the first quarter of 2020 in order to scale our product to the whole Mena region, which will enable us to upgrade our current client contracts from local to regional contracts, reflecting "hockey-stick" growth in terms of sales.
Updated: December 29, 2019 04:48 PM