IST grad uses technology to develop innovative solutions

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For Todd Bacastow, a 2005 graduate of Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and the Schreyer Honors College, technology and business make the perfect partners in solving real-world problems. Since graduating from the College of IST, he has had a number of roles that use cutting-edge technology to develop innovative products and solutions.

“For me, IST is really about finding innovative ways to solve problems with technology,” Bacastow said.

Bacastow, who is director of product management for DigitalGlobe, a leading provider of geospatial information and insight, returned to Penn State for Start-up Week 2014. Held April 7-11, Start-up Week featured successful entrepreneurs and innovators from around the country who converged at the University for a week-long celebration of ingenuity and inspiration.

“It’s a great win-win for alumni and friends of Penn State to participate and engage with entrepreneurial students,” said Bacastow.

As director of product management, Bacastow works to incubate, launch and grow products for DigitalGlobe’s Insight line of business, which brings together satellite imagery, geospatial data, and analytic technologies to answer critical questions for decision makers. One of his major accomplishments, he said, has been the commercial launch of a human geography product that consists of data layers derived from satellite imagery, open sources of information, and crowdsourcing.  To date, the DigitalGlobe team has compiled data sets for countries around the world that describe the “human makeup” of the area and infrastructure that characterize how people interact with their surroundings. Such data sets provide the “fuel” for geospatial analysis such as predictive mapping, which helps anticipate where events are statistically most likely to occur in the future.

Bacastow joined DigitalGlobe through its acquisitions of GeoEye and SPADAC. At SPADAC, he worked closely with the founders of the company to grow the business through strategic initiatives. Before this role, he worked at FirstMark Capital, a venture capital firm that invested in SPADAC.

Recently, crowdsourcing -- the process of seeking work, usually online, from a crowd of people -- has played in increasingly important role in solving problems that are too large or complex for a few experts to solve themselves. Tomnod, a startup that was acquired last year by DigitalGlobe, has enabled ordinary Internet users to play a role in helping to solve one of the most perplexing mysteries in recent history -- the disappearance of the Malaysian jetliner MH370.

Since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 and its 239 passengers vanished in March, there has been an international search effort focusing on the southern Indian Ocean. About 8 million volunteers combed DigitalGlobe satellite imagery for evidence of what happened to the missing jetliner. The Tomnod mission is to utilize the power of the crowd to identify objects in satellite images or rapidly map locations of interest such as damaged buildings after a natural disaster to assess the impact. Tomnod’s CrowdRank algorithm analyzes the contributions of each user to statistically validate the inputs of individuals to produce a set of actionable data points for experts to eventually examine and use to focus their search.

“There’s been an overwhelming response and it’s fantastic to have so many people want to help,” Bacastow said.

Just hours after the disappearance of flight MH370, DigitalGlobe began directing its constellation of five high-resolution imaging satellites to capture imagery of the Gulf of Thailand region -- the last known location of the aircraft. Upon logging into the website, Tomnod users are provided with a randomly chosen satellite image from the search area and instructed on how to drop pins if they see signs of airplane wreckage, life rafts, oil slicks or anything that looks unusual. An algorithm then finds where there is overlap in tags from people who tagged the same location, and the most notable areas are shared with authorities.

Recalling his time at Penn State, Bacastow’s decision to enroll in the College of IST was motivated by a desire to develop business expertise to complement his passion for technology. One of the key pieces of advice that he imparted to students during Start-up Week, he said, was to learn about different industries outside the major where technology can be applied. While start-ups were a main theme of Start-up Week, Bacastow says that aspiring entrepreneurs can also gain entrepreneurial experience in larger companies, which can offer innovative environments in which to learn and grow.

“It’s a great way to learn from people who have actually done it, and find innovative ways to grow an established business,” he said.

Last Updated June 17, 2014