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How Palantir Uses Big Data to Find Missing Kids

March 14, 2016, 10:11 PM UTC
Photograph by Brad Wenner for Fortune

Palantir Technologies, the data analytics company profiled in the current issue of Fortune, isn’t unique in its efforts to turn its software toward social good—plenty of tech companies do that. But unlike most, Palantir says it treats nonprofits like any other customer, not just as a “corporate social responsibility” afterthought.

For starters, Palantir puts these organizations through a tough selection process very similar to the one it uses when deciding who to work with in its money-making businesses, the government and commercial sectors. (The company is picky about its “partners.”) Once a partnership is formed, Palantir embeds a team of engineers in the organization to help deploy the technology and determine what other problems its software can solve.

Lucky for Palantir, big data challenges are just as common in the nonprofit world as in the for-profit sector. Recently, the company, which started out partnering with the U.S. intelligence and defense communities in antiterrorism efforts, has turned its attention to one of the biggest current problems: The Syrian civil war and subsequent refugee crisis, via a collaboration with The Carter Center. “We’re a company that focuses on the world’s hardest problems,” says Karin Knox, head of Palantir’s philanthropy engineering team. “Right now we probably have a hand in all of them.”

Here, in no particular order, are some of those other problems Palantir is hoping to help solve, one terabyte of data at a time.

Polaris Project

Back in 2012, Polaris’ chief executive, Bradley Myles, heard Palantir’s CEO, Alex Karp, speak at a White House event hosted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. After listening to Karp wax poetic about Palantir’s data analytics capabilities, Myles knew it was something his non-profit—which is dedicated to eradicating modern-day slavery—needed but couldn’t afford. “We were collecting great data but couldn’t visualize it,” says Myles. He sparked a conversation with Karp, and a pro-bono relationship quickly formed. Just a few weeks later, Palantir engineers were integrating data from thousands of victim records, public tips and financial networks in an effort to help track human trafficking rings. (Worldwide, the illegal industry brings in an estimated $32 billion in profits annually from the enslavement of more than 20 million people.) “The way they [trafficking rings] are organized is similar to terror cells,” says Myles. That made it a familiar challenge to Palantir, which is still working with Polaris on multiple projects.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

Last year alone, more than 4.4 million reports of suspected child exploitation came in via NCMEC’s tip line—an impossible amount of data for a nonprofit organization to sift through on its own. Enter Palantir, which has been working with the organization since 2010. The tech company integrates tips, case reports, public records, videos, social media feeds and other data sources and helps draw connections. The goal? To help MCMEC—and law enforcement—fight the abduction and sexual exploitation of children.

Team Rubicon

When Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast in 2012, Palantir engineers saw an opportunity. They partnered with Team Rubicon, a relief organization made up of military veterans, to help coordinate the aid efforts of 10,000 volunteers. According to Steve Hunt, chief information officer at Rubicon, Palantir’s engineers came out and wrote software (to help assess Sandy’s damage in real time, among other uses) on the field, in some of the hardest-hit regions. “They became part of the team,” says Hunt. Since then, Rubicon has used mobile apps built on Palantir technology to help assess damage and coordinate relief following some of the world’s worst flooding, tornados and other natural disasters.