In school security, a fly on the digital wall

Digital Fly founder Derek Peterson.

By GREGORY ZELLER // If it’s going to happen, it very well might happen on the Internet first.

That’s the thinking behind Digital Fly, a real-time social media monitoring and alert service spun out of Hauppauge-based Intelligent Product Solutions. Named for the proverbial fly on the wall, Digital Fly looks to improve school safety by tracking threats on sites like Instagram and Twitter and alerting officials as necessary.

Leading the way is Derek Peterson, Digital Fly’s founder and chief technology officer and the vice president of business development at IPS. In lock step: Sal Iannuzzi, the former president and chief executive of Symbol Technologies who was introduced this week as Digital Fly CEO.

“Our greatest asset is our children, and Digital Fly helps protect students from potential threats,” Iannuzzi said. “We eliminate the burdensome and time-consuming task for school personnel to monitor social media.”

Using geolocation and keyword searches programmed by school officials, the program follows social media accounts within a 10-mile radius of a school campus and automatically alerts officials when preprogrammed search terms – “guns,” “drugs,” “kill,” etc. – are detected.

The service is designed to prevent the “next incident,” according to Peterson, though Digital Fly is “an important tool not just to stop crime, but also for administrators to better understand what’s going on in their school – bullying and other problems.”

After two years of what Peterson described as a skunkworks effort between himself, a few other engineers and a marketing expert, Digital Fly officially takes flight this week. It actually began beta testing in the spring, and as it evolves into a full-on social media monitor it already has its first paying customer: John Adams High School in South Ozone Park, one of the service’s beta testers.

To start, Digital Fly will monitor Instagram and Twitter accounts within a selected radius. By the end of the year the service will start tracking Facebook and then “a whole list of other social media content providers,” noted Peterson.

“We have a roadmap that we’re building out,” the CTO said. “According to the needs of our customers, first it was Twitter and Instagram and then Facebook. Facebook has become more popular with teachers and other adults – kids are really using Instagram and Twitter more.”

Peterson is quick to note, however, that Digital Fly is not meant to monitor students exclusively.

“Take, for example, Sandy Hook Elementary School,” Peterson said. “This wasn’t a student at the school, but a distraught young man who was posting on social media, showing he was disturbed.

“Digital Fly is meant to monitor an entire community.”

The CTO admits the system is not perfect: For instance, monitoring content within a 10-mile radius might not capture every potential threat or cyberbullying post.

“If somebody lives in California, they can write something against Longwood High School and we will not pick that up,” Peterson noted. “We will not catch everything.”

But the geolocation limits can be expanded as necessary – “We needed to put a number on it, so we picked that 10-mile radius,” Peterson said – and users living within the covered zone are more than likely to notice that threat from California and comment on it, bringing farther-flung concerns to Digital Fly’s attention. The service also provides a digital “tip line” allowing students or parents to anonymously report potential problems.

And when threats from one district are made against students or schools in another, Peterson added, “law enforcement and other agencies will come into play.”

The service is priced per student and the startup’s go-to-market plan involves reseller partners. Lynbrook software maker Optimum Solutions Corp. is Digital Fly’s exclusive reseller for New York State, and “we’re working on plan right now to bring in additional resellers across the country,” Peterson said.

The plan is also to push the social media monitor in person. Peterson has held demos for administrators at Georgia State University, a public school district in Georgia and Nassau BOCES, as well as “lunch-and-learn” sessions for several other New York school districts.

The spinoff will certainly benefit from the wisdom and deep CV of Iannucci, who was also president and CEO of global job-finder Monster Worldwide and brings “30 years of pure business experience” to the table, according to Peterson.

But its ability to protect students – not only from potential tragedies but from everyday threats like bullying – is what will drive the service home, Peterson added.

“With knowledge comes power,” he said.

Digital Fly

What’s It? Social media monitoring and alert service

Brought To You By: Derek Peterson, founder, CTO and (for now) VP of business development at Intelligent Product Solutions

All In: About $50,000 in “engineering labor,” invested over two years of night and weekend work

Status: Now monitoring Instagram and Twitter feeds; Facebook patrols coming soon