Increasing the Barrier of Time: Recapping SparkCognition’s School Safety Demo Event


School administrators, safety resource officers, and community stakeholders filled HyperWerx building #2 last Thursday for a series of live demos and discussions exploring how K-12 and higher education leaders can deploy SparkCognition Visual AI Advisor to improve school safety. 

Over several information-packed hours, the game-changing advantages of “more time” kept coming to the fore in remarks from SparkCognition leaders and current Visual AI Advisor customers. Principally, the ways in which the real-time, proactive threat detection and alerting provided by Visual AI Advisor running on existing CCTV cameras allow school security staff more time to move students and employees to safety and more time for law enforcement to arrive on the scene to respond to the situation.


“This is about keeping our children safe”

Welcoming the attendees, SparkCognition founder and CEO Amir Husain put the growing problem of active shooter incidents in our schools into context: “In a country like America, the biggest responsibility we have is to keep our children safe in institutions of learning.” He noted how in the last school year, we saw the highest number of gunfire incidents in the US in nearly a decade, with 193 incidents on preschool and K-12 campuses, amounting to a 300% increase over the previous year. As a parent who put his children through Texas public schools, Husain acknowledged that the problem can sometimes seem intractable, especially when our national discourse around what’s happening and how we should fix it veers off into talking points. But we can’t allow that to sidetrack us from what’s most important, observing: “This is not a partisan issue. This is about keeping our children safe. So what we’re here to do today is to take all of that [distraction] out of the room and focus just on the solution.”


Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Gold explained how SparkCognition, an AI company that built its reputation solving critical challenges for global industrial companies, became involved in making schools more secure for teachers and students. “Much of the work we do is around helping ensure worker safety at large. We try to approach industries, thinking about the types of problems and the types of opportunities we have to solve meaningful issues—things that truly move the needle. Obviously, nothing could be more important than the well-being of our students. And we’d like nothing else than to return to where teachers can focus just on education.” 


Gold emphasized that safety practices and systems schools are currently using need not be wholly replaced by Visual AI Advisor in order to reap the benefits. “That’s the beautiful part about AI. It really extends and augments human capability and current systems, so your existing infrastructure can be capitalized. Whatever cameras you have, great. Don’t change them. Whatever bandwidth exists, we’ll use that. There’s nothing that requires an investment of net-new, ‘change all the technology out’. So if you have access control systems or if you have metal detectors, we want to use that as an augmentation to the bigger picture.” But he noted the limitations of the current approaches in place today: “They tend to be fairly limited from a location-based point of view. And they tend to be reactionary. An audible system [means] a shot has to be fired. But the problem is if the shots are fired, the incident has already started to evolve. We’d like to get way upstream to prevent that from ever occurring. So the things that we’d like you to think about as we show you the demonstrations are: how does this prevent, how does this predict, how does this provide a campus-wide point of view? How is this able to maintain diligence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? An AI-enabled approach is a fundamental game changer, we believe, to the safety of our students.”

Demonstrating Visual AI Advisor, from everyday safety to stopping an active shooter before time runs out

With that, Milton Lopez, SparkCognition’s chief designer and director of applied science, took the stage to narrate the action as his HyperWerx colleagues—alongside a handful of SparkCognition volunteer actors pretending to be students—ran through a series of live vignettes demonstrating our solution for school safety on a typical schoolday. The audience watched on large, live-streamed video monitors while closed-circuit cameras tracked car traffic at HyperWerx’s main entrance resembling a high school parking lot entryway. Visual AI Advisor extracted the license plate details of each vehicle, classifying it as known or unknown to the school. On another screen onstage with Lopez, the audience saw Visual AI Advisor’s dashboard interface capturing a snapshot image of the vehicle, timestamp info, and a running count of all vehicles currently on campus. 

Next, the audience saw a camera feed of school students exiting their cars and entering the school, sorting known cars and faces (blurred faces for privacy, if preferred) from unknown visitors, as well as keeping a live count. Switching to a view of the front lobby that segued into a hallway with lockers, Visual AI Advisor tracked footfall and displayed heatmaps of where students congregated. As the actors simulated a bullying situation in front of the lockers, Lopez explained how the AI software can detect unsafe or unwanted behavior. Leveraging AI models trained to recognize a “man down” situation, the audience saw a red bounding box around one actor who had been pushed to the ground and was lying prone for an unusual amount of time, which immediately alerts school authorities that there is a problem. 


Then the students moved on through the courtyard area to the classroom, all while the school’s CCTV cameras collected data about when, where, and how many were moving inside the school at all times while correctly identifying each student in coordination with their movement even as different cameras came into play.


The next live demo sequence began: another car arrived on campus. The attendees watched as the same cameras and dashboards from the previous demonstrations worked in concert to flag this unknown vehicle arriving before an unknown individual got out carrying a long handbag—unusual behavior that the AI-enabled camera system noticed. As the person stepped through the parking lot into the front lobby, the system began to light up the handbag with a red bounding box and a label that said ‘rifle’. Now, this may or may not be a rifle, the system had not fully validated that yet, and it could be something else. On the other hand, this could be the school’s first tip-off that a gun is present on campus. Lopez noted that when the AI model reaches a threshold of confidence that something doesn’t look right, a safety resource officer will get an instant alert on their mobile device with an image of the unidentified person holding the bag, timestamp, location, etc., and begin to assess whether it’s a significant concern, buying invaluable time for countermeasures if needed.

As the person stopped in the hallway in front of the lockers, the camera feed captured them opening the bag and pulling out a long gun (fake, of course). Immediately, a red bounding box appeared around the object, identifying it as a rifle, and the school’s safety staff got an urgent alert that a weapon had definitely been detected. Lopez commented on how, per Visual AI Advisor’s configurable settings, this alert automatically initiates lockdown procedures and notifies law enforcement, as well. 


With the school alerted to the presence of a gun, alarms blaring through the courtyard, and police in route, the active shooter suspect walked through the school and attempted to enter the classroom, but those doors were locked due to the automatic lockdown procedures Visual AI Advisor initiated. After a few more moments, law enforcement arrived, apprehending the suspect before any shots were fired. 


“Now we’ve exponentially increased our time barrier”

After the live vignettes and a demonstration of how drones are used to secure the school’s perimeter, the event transitioned to presentations from representatives of two schools that have deployed SparkCognition Visual AI Advisor—one a fast-growing Texas public school district and the other a private school in Nevada. Travis Motal, Liberty Hill ISD Director of Secondary Education, and Todd Peters, Adelson Educational Campus Head of School Safety, both spoke of the importance of hardening their schools’ defense systems, training their staff and students for unpredictable security scenarios, and maintaining close relationships with local law enforcement. And they agreed that there is virtually no more important factor than increasing the “barrier of time” to act purposefully during the first few minutes of an emergency such as an active shooter situation. 


In the words of Motal, speaking of his school’s partnership with SparkCognition, “We can put all the barriers in place that we want, and ultimately, it won’t stop an emergency situation from happening. So if we can see that threat before it even comes into the building, before it even reaches that time barrier, now we’ve exponentially increased our time barrier, allowing law enforcement to get there. What we’re trying to do is let the AI be an additional resource for us.” 


We will have more to say about Liberty Hill and Adelson’s remarks on partnering with SparkCognition in another blog post coming soon. In the meantime, don’t miss this Fox 7 news coverage of the event. If you have any questions about SparkCognition Visual AI Advisor for school safety, please reach out to us to set up an exploratory call.


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