Pondera Solutions wants to fight welfare fraud with Google Glass

By James Robinson , written on March 10, 2014

From The News Desk

Google Glass hasn't officially gone on sale yet but it's already spurned a large degree of commercial experimentation and set off a raging debate on class warfare. Law enforcement officers may want to hand out driving violations when they see you using Google Glass, but they’re not opposed to putting a pair on themselves. The New York Police Department are experimenting with Google Glass and last week, Northern California-based fraud investigation company Pondera Solutions announced its plans to offer a Google Glass service to its clients.

It’s going to be a new test for haters. If you loathe the sight of Google Glass plastered on the face of some satchel-clad tech worker walking about your neighborhood, there’s a good chance you’ll be irate when a fraud investigator comes to your door sporting a pair.

Pondera Solutions - which was founded in 2011 - isn’t law enforcement, per se. The company offers fraud detection software to its clients with the aim of weeding out people that might be gaming public housing, unemployment, food stamps, and Medicaid systems. The company is tight-lipped about who it works with, but confirms that its client list includes the State of Iowa and the California Department of Health Services. It has been working on its Google Glass system since the last half of 2013 and hopes by Q4 of this year it will be able to give its partners head-mounted access to the 200,000 sources of information and millions of transactions it collates and analyzes. The company, which looks for fraud risks by leveraging Google’s advanced analytics to spot anomalies and outliers, thinks Google Glass it can help more actively spot these in real time.

Jon Coss, Pondera Solutions’ CEO and founder, isn’t a bona fide believer in the potential for Google Glass as a consumer tool. He says that he took a pair home and his kids took photos and surfed the Internet.

“There’s a lot I can do on my phone that I can do on glass,” he says. “But I think the business applications for Google Glass are almost limitless. If we didn’t embrace it when we see applications like this, we wouldn’t be serving our clients as well as we should be.”

The benefits of offering Google Glass to auditors who are in the field are clear, Coss says. Rather than having to go back to the car to look something up, or look down at a phone or tablet helps an officer keep their eyes trained on the person they’re dealing with. Information security is another big gain, allowing the officer to see confidential information without anyone looking over their shoulder.

“Say you’re doing an audit of a company’s billable medical equipment, an auditor can bring up applicant information, they can look up records, see what is supposed to be there, if there really is an x-ray machine, what they’ve been billing for,” Coss says.

There are three practical hurdles for Pondera Solutions. Coss says that the company has prided itself on putting every piece of information on its system two-clicks away from investigators and that it only takes a day of training to be able to use effectively. But he agrees that distilling that information into the small bites that are effective for someone wearing Google Glass is a challenging part of the design process. The company is working with former investigators in a number of fields on different templates and designs at the moment.

“We’re not going to boil the ocean with this," Coss says. "It will come down to a few, easy to use tools."

The second issue is cost. Pondera works with departments that range in size from a handful of investigators, up to five or six hundred. The Glass software will be offered as a free add-on for existing clients, packaged with its existing fraud software, but for smaller departments the $1,500 price tag for the Glasse hardware might be too much.

The last is consumer backlash. Even criminals have rights and summon up a firestorm of bad press if they feel like they're being mistreated. Pondera Systems works in a controversial area. Coss says that as much as 20 percent of the $2.4 trillion given out in government assistance each year is badly handled. Welfare fraud has become a juicy political issue, with Republicans happy to talk all day about American citizens content to live comfortably on the back of the government. All the while, some studies have put the costs of welfare fraud as low as two or four percent – far below standard fraud costs for private businesses.

Coss says Pondera doesn’t just help investigators make life harder for the individual scammer, it goes after bad agencies too. But, as some have pointed out, the largest waste in the budget still comes from bureaucratic incompetence, not individual dishonesty.

“There’s no perfect system and we are careful to point that out. We don’t prove fraud, we just identify anomalies and suspicious activity. We’re more likely to let bad transactions go through than alert for false positives,” Coss says.

The company’s move to put Google Glass on the face of its clients, will bring this tension – quite literally – to the surface. Bringing glass into law enforcement will require a good deal of communication and transparency, to avoid the glasses becoming perceived as beacons of persecution and suspicion.

Be it robot police officers, wearable cameras, and now Google Glass, part of this adjustment will lie with citizens who will need to acclimate to police work in a new technological age. But the biggest burden will fall on the agencies themselves, who must show that the the performance benefit enabled by these cutting-edge tools outweigh the violations of trust and privacy. That's a burden that has not yet been met.