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Member Spotlight: How Darkhorse Geospatial Is Bringing Intelligence into the 21st Century

1776_DHgeo_spotlightThe World Trade Center attack on September 11, 2001, changed the way of life for many Americans and ushered in a new era of government intelligence.

Emmy Harbo is at the center of both.

As a result of that terrorist attack, Harbo, a former Booz Allen analyst, cofounded Darkhorse Geospatial, a startup that modernizes intelligence processes and brings them into the 21st century. Now, her company is developing technology that will analyze real-time social media information and turn it into actionable intelligence.

Darkhorse Geospatial joined the 1776 community earlier this month, and we caught up with Harbo to talk about how her company engages government as a customer and about how she got her start (It involves a wine bar!).

Can you describe what it is that you do? (Also in layman’s terms: What does ‘geospatial’ mean, and how does that affect intelligence work?)

Geospatial analysis involves collecting and analyzing information about features on the ground, their relationships to the earth and to each other. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) is data and information gathered about our adversaries that can be referenced to a location.

Darkhorse Geospatial focuses on modernizing intelligence processes. We provide creative solutions that enable the government to adopt new techniques for fighting terrorism and other national security threats. One project we’re focused on now is related to Social Media Intelligence (SOMINT—a concept created by Darkhorse). We are creating a SOMINT analysis tool called the “SOMINT Deck,” which enables federal agencies to transform real-time social media data into actionable intelligence.

How do you go about convincing government & other customers that Darkhorse—a startup—is the solution they’re looking for?  

Due to constrained budgets, federal agencies have established initiatives to find and fund innovative ideas. These programs actually solicit non-traditional sources for new ideas and technology (such as small businesses, startups and academia). The Defense Intelligence Agency’s Needipedia and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s InnoVision programs are two great examples of these initiatives. The DIA’s goal “start small, scale fast, fail cheap” provides an opportunity for us to reach our customer, get our foot in the door and prototype our ideas in the government space, an opportunity that is much more difficult without the innovation programs.

We engage our potential government customers in multiple ways by:

1)    Submitting our ideas in white paper format to agency innovation programs, such as those mentioned above, to demonstrate our solutions,

2)    Responding to Requests for Information and submitting proposals directly to the government,

3)    Meeting regularly with mentors and larger companies who are already in the market to share our ideas and collaborate on our mutual interests.

The site mentions that Darkhorse also is women-owned. How does that affect the company mentality and the way business is run?

Our women-owned status helps us gain work in the government arena. As a Small Business Administration-Certified Women-Owned Small Business, we may have an advantage in the coming years. The SBA mandates that 5 percent of the federal contracts are awarded to women-owned companies, yet even after a decade of trying, the government has never met this goal.

The good news is that they are improving.  Last year was the highest award rate ever—at 4.3 percent to women-owned small firms. There are also discussions at the SBA suggesting that Congress pass a law to let agencies award sole-source contracts to women-owned small firms—a benefit every other socio-economic class of contracts already has.

Your website also evokes a strong sense of national pride—and mentions the 9/11 attacks. How did those attacks spur the creation of Darkhorse?

The attacks on 9/11 have everything to do with the creation of Darkhorse. In response to 9/11 the intelligence community made drastic changes to protect us from this new enemy.

Although we’ve made a lot of progress in irregular warfare since 9/11, we are not finished. We are living in a very dangerous time and are facing more threats than ever, yet innovation across the government seems stalled. This is why we started Darkhorse: to bring positive change and increase the effectiveness of national security programs.

What brought you personally to the world of intelligence? What’s your background?

My path to the world of intelligence had a lot of switchbacks. I was working as an archaeologist when I was introduced to the geospatial world. I was hooked and shortly after began a career at Booz Allen Hamilton in Geospatial Analysis.

While at Booz Allen I supported multiple government agencies, which gave me project management, business experience and excellent insight into how the government operates. I also owned a wine bar in Annapolis, Maryland, where I learned what it takes to operate my own business—the good, the bad and the ugly!

What does the future look like in terms of your line of work? What are some opportunities (or challenges) for startups to be aware of as cybersecurity becomes more of an issue?

Within the next 10 years we anticipate that there will be an entire agency dedicated to finding intelligence on the Open Internet. By this we don’t mean an agency dedicated to “spying on Americans.” Rather, we will be leveraging social media to actively predict and react to national security threats.

Open-Source Intelligence and SOMINT are changing the intelligence landscape. Making sense of big data, analyzing sentiment and finding real-time, actionable intelligence among social media are big challenges right now for government. As technology leaders, startups have an opportunity in this market because we can provide the government with technology and fresh ideas to make sense of the overwhelming amount of data out there. Darkhorse’s SOMINT Deck will help solve a piece of this puzzle as it provides the government with the power to respond to relevant social media information.

What brought you to 1776? As a new member, what are you most looking forward to?

Prior to discovering 1776, we considered Darkhorse a small business rather than a startup. Government consulting companies in Washington, D.C., are rarely referred to as “startups.”

After reading an article about 1776, we started digging deeper into their mission and learned the difference between a small business and a startup. We read about 1776’s commitment to innovation and saw corporate partners Booz Allen and Esri, who are in the same industry as us, and realized that we belong at 1776, too!

As a new member, Darkhorse is looking forward to finding partners and mentors, and collaborating with other startups. We plan to create mutually beneficial partnerships that will enable us to bring our solutions to market.