A three-way partnership to develop artificial intelligence

A three-way partnership to develop artificial intelligence

A Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) between the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), a graduate, and a financial services firm in Bristol has developed a smart system that will help customers decide how to invest their money. KTP is a UK government programme that supports companies in implementing innovative solutions to grow their business.   

Rowan Dartington (RD) is building a cyborg. Or at least this is the way the financial services firm describes a user interface it hopes will revolutionise how clients invest their money and enable it to attract more millennials to set up portfolios.

RD is one of the UK’s leading providers of personalised wealth management services. With expertise in providing advice to investors, it is also putting a lot of work into developing the algorithms behind its online service. To ensure its new interface towered above competitors, Phil McHenry, RD’s Head of Software Development, wanted to complement its developers’ skills with specific academic knowledge in data science and user experience (UX). It therefore turned to UWE Bristol.

Together, RD and UWE Bristol began collaborating on a KTP, a programme spearheaded by Innovate UK that helps companies improve their productivity and competitiveness via a partnership with an academic institution and the recruitment of a recent graduate with specific expertise. Academic expertise was provided by Dr Paul Matthews, a senior lecturer in the Department for Computer Science and Creative Industries, and Bala Goudar was recruited for the two-year project.

Goudar, who has a PhD in Climate Physics (RD colleagues came to refer him as ‘weatherman’), had a particular skill in analysing data and a keen interest in financial markets. RD introduced him to fund management, helping him adapt to the company’s way of working. “KTP helps move people from the academic to the business environment,” says RD Chief Operating Officer Ben Cooper, “but the pressures in both worlds are different.”

To cater for clients with smaller amounts to invest, many fund managers’ online systems offer ‘robo-advice,’ algorithm-generated information about how to invest. RD’s new platform, once fully developed, will also offer such a service, but it wanted to take this one step further – by making the interface ‘intelligent.’ The KTP provided the innovation and knowledge a to achieve this.

During the KTP, which began in 2015, Goudar grew his skills in data analysis in a business context. In his second year, he began designing the algorithms, which RD’s software development team implemented. By having a data expert apply his knowledge to their business, RD began to look at data in a new way. “Data is an asset that is becoming increasingly important and Bala helped us realise that you can bring together seemingly unrelated data but still find a correlation,” says Cooper.

The KTP experience at RD also gave Goudar insight into the financial services industry. “I have had to learn the way a wealth management company firm such as RD operates before building anything,” he says. “These are all skills we don’t necessarily use in academia.”

Overseeing the project from an academic perspective, Paul Matthews brought to the table, among other skills, his knowledge of UX, ensuring that the system is highly intuitive for users. He also set up focus groups between UWE Bristol academics and RD directors around machine learning. “The KTP has also given UWE Bristol a foot in the Fintech [financial technology] world, which is becoming bigger and bigger, and where there is a lot of scope for us to be further involved from an academic perspective,” says Matthews.

With the new interface, still in development, if someone new to investing approaches RD to enquire about investment, they will first carry out a search through the online system. In the next step, the enquirer meets with an adviser to set up their portfolio. The data generated from this interaction then loops back into the platform to help feed the information provided to future investors. Through machine learning combined with human feedback, the ‘cyborg’ therefore teaches itself to yield even better advice next time.

This Partnership received financial support from the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme (KTP).  KTP aims to help businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK Knowledge Base.  KTP is funded by Innovate UK along with the other government funding organisations.

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