BetaBoston

Buzzient founder trades bomb detection for social sleuthing to defend national security

File Photo

In his previous life, Buzzient chief executive Tim Jones headed up BionTTech, a start-up focused on bomb detection. Now instead of chemicals, his new company searches for potentially explosive situations in tweets, Facebook posts, and and online forums.

 Last week, Jones said, was a hectic one, as he worked to tweak Buzzient’s services, which the company has been providing pro bono to the Boston Police Department, to focus on key terms that could shed light on the Patriot’s Day bombings and possibly locate follow-up chatter.

“We can look for very, very specific nouns or topics that might be product components, so we were looking for people talking about explosives, but also different variants of explosives,” he told me.

Advertisement—Continue Reading Below

Buzzient works by taking unstructured data — a stream of Twitter and Facebook posts, for example, or postings in a chemistry forum devoted to explosives — and highlights where chatter is the most urgent.

The company’s primary focus has been on using this social data to highlight customer service painpoints, identifying problems and sales opportunities for the likes of Zynga, Airbus, and Williams-Sonoma. But Jones said security applications were always in the back of his mind.

“We built Buzzient with the belief that we would have both commercial as well as government clients,” he told me. After the London riots, he said the Boston Police Department reached out, and Buzzient began providing free services and social reports.

He said that the BPD has used the tools and reports to gather information on flashmobs, which often use social channels to organize.

As for the business of defending the country from attacks, Jones said there was a big opportunity for start-ups.

“It’s a substantial market, but it’s highly fragmented,” he said. “It’s only when we have these big, unfortunately cataclysmic events that people realize that this idea of creating security is a big complex problem.”

Correction: The location of Buzzient’s office was originally misstated in this post. Scott Kirsner has previously reported on Buzzient’s location. “We moved to 34 Farnsworth in early 2011,” Jones wrote to me in a follow-up email. “Then that lease expired in Feb 2013 and we’re looking for new space.” A Buzzient representative told me yesterday that company was still located downtown, but given the company’s history, I should have taken that with a grain of salt. I’ve followed up with the BPD for more information about their work with Buzzient.

Update: I should also note that Scott Kirsner also highlighted Buzzient in his Sunday column, along with a number of other technology companies looking to prevent attacks — or at least position themselves that way to the public and potential investors. Kirsner wrote:

But you also had people sharing “We Love Boston” images that happened to include their company’s logo (whoops, quick apology), and entrepreneurs showing up on television and in print to tout their software’s ability to find clues to a crime amid social media chatter. Buzzient founder Timothy B. Jones endlessly tweeted about his Bloomberg TV and New York Times press hits last week; the start-up, once based in Boston, now seems to operate out of Kennebunkport, Maine. (Jones didn’t respond to my requests for comment.)

“The right phrase here is, where can you help out by being a technologist, rather than seeing it as a business opportunity,” says Christopher Ahlberg. His Cambridge start-up, Recorded Future, analyzed Web mentions of pressure cooker bombs over the past three years and published a map showing where they had been concentrated. He stresses that he “wasn’t calling the media” last week, but that “we did have some in-bound requests for comment.”

I can be reached at Michael.Morisy@Boston.com and on Twitter at @Morisy.

Share