November 14, 2013 7:58 pm

Arria to float business of turning ‘big data’ into reports

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They can already drive our cars, trounce us at chess and game the stock market. But in the latest sign that algorithms are taking over from humans, a British company that uses computers to turn “big data” into readable reports in minutes is planning a stock market flotation.

Arria NLG, which stands for “natural language generation”, uses artificial intelligence software developed at the University of Aberdeen to sift through thousands of data points to produce written reports in English – a process that would normally take professional analysts hours to complete.

Its technology is already being used by Royal Dutch Shell to write reports on the status of oil rig pumps and generators in the Gulf of Mexico. Shell’s adoption of the software comes after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010, which forced the industry to re-evaluate its approach to safety and risk.

“We know from industry that there is a shortage of analysts dealing with data and that [they] are currently chained to their desks, wading through data sets and visualisations,” explained Simon Small, president and executive director of Arria. “Our software scales and replicates expertise.”

Arria’s imminent listing reflects increasing investor interest in companies that can exploit “big data” – the information produced by digital systems, such as smartphones and medical sensors. A report by Sintef, the Nordic research group, recently calculated that 90 per cent of all the data in the world was produced in the past two years.

The science behind the software has been in development for 25 years, but the advent of big data means it has “come of age,” Mr Small says. Known as the “natural language generation engine”, it has two components: a side that is programmed to analyse data as an expert would, and a side that produces fluent text.

Arria says its software reduces the time taken to produce reports on oil rig equipment from several hours to minutes or less, making closer monitoring of the machinery viable.

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It was also used in a research project with the University of Aberdeen to generate reports on the conditions of babies in the intensive care unit of a major hospital. This helped with handovers between medical staff – one of the most critical aspects of neonatal care.

Arria boosted its big data capabilities in May 2012, when it acquired a stake in Data2Text Ltd, the company founded by the software’s inventors - computer scientists Ian Davy, Ehud Reiter and Yaji Sripada. Along with John Perry, a geophysicist and oil sector adviser at Data2Text, they will collectively hold 17.5 per cent of Arria after the float, with the University of Aberdeen owning 5 per cent.

In the 15 months since buying Data2Text, Arria has raised $40m of capital. In the last round of fundraising shares were priced at $1.60 – giving the company an approximate value of £100m. Broker Allenby expects the free float to be 37 per cent when the company is admitted to Aim, which it hopes to be by the end of November.

Filings at Companies House show that the company made a pre-tax operating loss of £6.5m in the 12 months to September 30, 2012 on revenues of £62,554.

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