In an almost textbook case of innovation spurring economic development, a Massey PhD student’s thesis is at the heart of a hugely exciting New Zealand software startup.
David Robinson’s thesis focused on algorithms to generate knowledge from complex, linked data – for example, knowledge useful for detecting terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud or other activities where an antagonistic actor is actively trying to hide their true identity.
Interest in law enforcement comes naturally to Dr Robinson: prior to studying his PhD he worked as an intelligence professional both in New Zealand and the UK and had long wished for more useful technology, particularly where a manual approach isn’t feasible. The existing software was too inaccurate for many purposes or didn’t cope with large datasets.
“Some investigations involved thousands of people across dozens of countries. The ability to trace thousands of transactions become things that go beyond what you can do on a spreadsheet, so a manual approach is never going to succeed. And the proprietary software was so inaccurate that you had to manually assess the results anyway.”
After moving back to New Zealand, he taught himself to code and began detailing how he might analyse data differently and the idea for his thesis was born.
Dr Robinson approached the academic dean for Information Sciences, Chris Scogings and discussed how his thesis would use a computer science and psychology approach as he also holds post-graduate qualifications in psychology.
“The PhD was a vehicle to put some rigour around what I was doing. To have it validated amongst global experts that it was a valid and useful approach. Now the focus is on applying what has been developed, to make a real difference."
“It was quite refreshing when I talked to someone at Massey and described what I wanted to do and the stage I was at. Massey understood the need for creative applied research, so I give a big tick to Massey.”
The research involved discovering optimal ways to represent data, link data, and detect meaningful patterns while ensuring that all of this complexity was usefully presentable to an end-user. His background in psychology led to a technology design that mimics human thought processes, but is engineered for scale and incorporating machine learning techniques.
While writing his thesis, Dr Robinson was approached by technology entrepreneur Dr John Holt who proposed to develop and commercialise his ideas by starting a software company. Subsequently, engineer Solomon Matthews came on board and Ramifier was born.
Ramifier solves the most challenging data problems for organisations: making data meaningful and actionable and breaking down the boundary between an organisation’s internal data and the data external to the organisation, enhancing the value of both.
Examples of Ramifier’s work include supporting the New Zealand Herald with mapping New Zealand’s property ownership using the entity resolution component of their software. This had never been done before, and Mr Robinson says it is still the most accurate estimate of property ownership in New Zealand.
He says the applications of Ramifier’s software are wide and varied. To date, Ramifier has been used for investigating financial crimes in the United States, property analysis, corporate analysis, data deduplication and cleansing, B2B lead generation, and there is interest in how the technology could support COVID-19 contact tracing.
Dr Robinson is now an advisor for Ramifier and says his passion to solve some of New Zealand’s most challenging problems is his main drive.