By: Arden Benner
The American Geographical Society is the oldest professional geographical organization in the United States; dedicated to the comprehensive advancement of geographic thinking in business, government, society, and education. In the almost seventeen decades since our conception, we’ve been proud to hold members from all corners of the field in a constant flux of new ideas and perspectives. Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down (via video conference) with several long-time friends of AGS to have a conversation about Black Cape, a dual-use start-up based in Arlington, Virginia, that builds mission technologies in highly regulated industries based on experiences and lessons-learned from the national security sector. Abe Usher is Co-CEO and the only of the three without a direct tie to AGS (we aren’t holding it against him), Al Di Leonardo is Co-CEO and an AGS Council member, and Scott Fairgrieve is an AGS Fellow, Black Cape Engineer, and one of the minds behind AGS’s Focus on Geography publication.
Black Cape is the culmination of Abe and Al’s decades of security experience combined with an appetite for innovation. In the age of information, they identified a need for small, agile, and data-oriented businesses capable of simultaneously understanding government needs, and the analytics necessary for data-driven problem solving. In Abe’s words, they were “bringing next-gen innovation to the national security sector.” The company thrives atop its three pillars of capability: artificial intelligence/machine learning, data engineering, and mission applications. This technological trifecta provides Black Cape a multifaceted foundation for problem solving that can be tailored to a client’s unique needs. Additionally, Scott elaborated on Black Cape’s ability to elucidate the process, building client trust in the algorithm and analytics that make their applications effective. The Black Cape mission centers on modernizing analytics—staying ahead of the curve. “We want to be with today’s technology, not yesterday’s.”
Black Cape supports a variety of both government-affiliated and commercial clients using one or a combination of their technical triumvirate. Mission Applications offer tailored, web-based and user-friendly software that’s designed to be high impact and secure. Data Analytics are a team-up between data scientists, engineers, and customer to create “actionable intelligence.” Black Cape maintains a personal “Data Lake” to assist with the operations. Finally, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tag team to form comprehensive, cloud-native models for data classification and regressions. In terms of products, Black Cape has designed and employed:
- World Pixel 8, a machine learning matrix in the form of a globe
- Terra Chat, a real time tool promoting geographical collaboration
- STARbase, a database engine designed for spatial-temporal analysis
- Knowledge Graph, a tool to automatically collect and connect world events
When asked about the reasoning behind the types of jobs Black Cape takes, Abe shared with us his three rules for deciding if a job is the right fit for their team:
- Is this a challenge where we can quickly have an impact?
- Is it a good environment—safe, enjoyable, and nontoxic?
- Will our engineers enjoy it?
Abe explained to us that the Black Cape team is at their most effective while innovating—working with new technology and fresh ideas. The team thrives on making a contribution to something bigger than themselves; taking enjoyment from the work that they do. In Abe’s words: “in the 21st century, technology is a superpower.”
Black Cape’s team of heroes (with shout outs to Scott, Zuri Hunter, and Ana Price specifically) are a 52-person squad of multidisciplinary geospatial specialists. Describing them, Abe says, “Like the avengers we have all these different backstories…It’s like the first episode, and we’re still putting the team together.” Abe and Al have a great deal of pride in the team that they’ve built. Black Cape is a young company, yet they’ve already acquired what Abe calls “critical mass;” people they know can be counted on to do good work and bring new and challenging ideas to the table. The secret behind building an unstoppable superhero team? Not only doing good work, but being good people—like attracts like. Black Cape puts a lot of weight into creating shared experiences. Even post COVID-19, the team (now scattered to their respective home-offices) has been getting creative in how they interact. Weekly LearnIT meetings feature Black Cape engineers demonstrating newly learned skills to the rest of the group. All Hands Meetings (or Al Hands Meetings if he won’t give up the floor) are a virtual social hour of non-tech related conversation. Virtual lunches (we speak from experience here at AGS) have been a great way to stay up to date with goings on; social distancing at its finest.
You can learn more about Black Cape and all that they do at blackcape.io