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Brandon Lee and Garrett Christian, Terra Dotta, US

Terra Dotta is a US edtech company aiming to change the student safety and duty of care experience during mobile study through its app and AlertTraveler product. The PIE News sat down with Brandon Lee and Garrett Christian, CEO and CTO respectively, to talk about the company’s origins between North Carolina and France, the litigious nature of the US, and GDPR.


Garrett Christian, left, Terra Dotta's Chief Technology Officer with Brandon Lee, CEO. Photo: The PIE News

I know that a lot of people are struggling... look at the LA Times

The PIE News: Tell us a bit about the history of Terra Dotta, and why you do what you do?

Brandon Lee – CEO: Garrett and I were getting our PhDs… we’d both studied abroad while we were in grad school. We were linguists, we studied multiple languages, and then we got into technology.

We wanted to make it easier to learn a foreign language by using technology and this was back in the 90’s… so we were doing really cool stuff with putting video and audio online and that wasn’t being done easily or very well that time.

“You know people sign things without reading and understanding”

We worked with UNC Chapel Hill to build on the customs solution for the study abroad office and showed it at the NAFSA Conference 16 or 17 years ago. There were hundreds of people there and they were incredibly excited to see it… we got excited about building that product and we got so excited that we got rid of all our other products and just focused on this.

The PIE: So nearly 20 years working on safety in international education – what motivates you to keep at it?

BL: We know the world can be a better place, so we love the fact that we generally work with an institution, and their numbers of sending students abroad and bringing students in go up.

We are making sure that they stay safe and that they have an ability to easily communicate [to] find out if there are problems, whatever they might be, so I think we go to bed at night feeling pretty good about the things that we do.

Garrett Christian – CTO: That’s everything!

The PIE: There are a few bills on study abroad safety trying to get through Congress [in the US] at the moment. Do you think there needs to be legislation or are you confident that the technology and private sector is sufficient?

BL: It’s an interesting question because the US is such a litigious society. A lot of [legal] things are going to happen and that’s a big part of what Terra Dotta helps universities with. When they plan programs, we integrate with student information systems and human resources directly to secure campus logins, meaning that people can digitally sign documents… the first things offices do is put all their release waivers in their forms and students can’t go on programs without signing X, Y and Z.

You know people sign things without reading and understanding [so] we also have testing and learning capabilities built into our software. So, if I tell you not to swim off of the shore because it’s very dangerous, or if I ask you to sign [a waiver] and you might sign it [but] that doesn’t mean that you read it.

But if you take a test asking is it safe to? You know then if you go to court it’s going to say ‘No, you did know this. You filled this out, you were logged in, we know your IP address’.

I think a lot of that just happens naturally due to the litigious nature of the US now, but the term ‘duty of care’, which has been around in Europe longer than here, is becoming a big topic of conversation in the US as well.

“I’m proud to say we’re doing great with GDPR”

GC: Whether it comes about naturally, it’s either going to come about through institutions adopting a posture for duty of care because of litigations happenings at other institutions, or it may come about [through] policy. Either institutional policy or governmental policy, one way or another, what we are doing is positioning our systems to be able to handle it.

So, the trend is there, it’s moving in that direction whether or not it’s policy government.

BL: And there is a huge competitor behaviour with institutions and if you can prove that you are keeping your people safer, you’re giving them more tools, that’s going to be in their best interest.

The PIE: Tell me about Alert Traveler because that seems to me to be a product that is really allowing institutions and students to have people keep tabs on them. Do you see it as that people in 2018 need to know what is going on all the time because that’s the way society’s become?

BL: I think there are a couple of answers to that question … one is technology has changed the world there is no doubt about it.

I studied abroad 30 years ago, I went to Paris and I called home twice in six months. I was gone and if I didn’t understand something I would have to try and describe it because I went to a town where no one spoke English.

If you are a student who goes to study abroad, you check Facebook every single day and you are keeping up with all your friends.

Alert Traveler does a number of things, one being where people who are supposed to be in Paris for six months, I promise you they are going to run over to London and they might forget to tell you.

“We go to bed at night feeling pretty good about the things that we do”

So the bomb goes off in Paris or London, we are going to be able to pull up data about them and find out where they really are with their GPS location.

We are finding out where they are, where they are supposed to be, [and] we’re also allowing in an emergency for them to check-in [with the institution].

And it’s not like it goes to the office and waits for three hours until that person wakes up on Saturday morning and sees something terrible has happened. The office is getting the alert at the same time as the travellers.

The director in the US wakes up and sees something that happened,  he or she can say ‘I really need everyone to check-in here’. They click a button and there is a check-in request that goes out to all students, and they know who they have to get worried about.

GC: I think that we think of Alert Traveler as some of the more sexy features that we have advertised, real-time data and those real-time crisis information communications back and forth the check-ins.

But there is more to it. It enables travellers to look at where they are, where they might want to go, so if I’m in Paris and I want to go to London, or maybe someplace less well travelled than London, I can look it up on my Alert Traveler advice.

There is location information built into the app. So I can look it up and see statistics, information about different areas of the city, the emergency numbers.

BL: How much do I tip … I need that.

The PIE: It seems you are collecting a fair amount of data, so I have to ask… how has GDPR been for you?

BL: We needed to make a couple of changes to make it easier for the opt-out and to request the removal of information, so we’ve added those things it in time for the deadline. We’ve announced that to our clients and it’s going to work. I’m proud to say that we’re doing great with handling GDPR.

BL: I know that a lot of people are struggling and a lot of websites are no longer available and look at the LA Times…

Couldn’t get the LA Times this week.

GC: Wow.

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