Catching up with Sharon Daniels, CEO of Arria NLG, a Natural Language Generation Technology Company

Big things are happening at Arria NLG, a natural language generation software company, whose CEO, Sharon Daniels, calls New Jersey home.

Daniels and her executive team run the company, which was founded in the UK and is now headquartered Morristown. “Besides myself, our chief financial officer is here, our chief operating officer is here. We have a senior VP of sales and sales engineers here,” she told us. They are here in New Jersey because the Garden State is the gateway to the U.S. market.

The company was started in 2012 by a group of executives with a background in building technology companies, Daniels told us. They were searching for an interesting technology to commercialize, and they came across the natural language generation (NLG) work of two computer scientists at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland. The company was established in London to be close to the university professors.

“Now we have offices in London, a development center in Auckland, New Zealand, and offices in New Jersey. In the U.S., there’s still the greatest concentration of opportunity in the world.”

She added that when the company started, big data was a trend in the industry, but 2012 was before the wave of artificial intelligence, and then of automation and digital transformation. “Now Arria is right in the middle and at the heart of these megatrends. … At the beginning, though, we focused on the technology.”

Natural language generation is artificial intelligence that takes structured data and converts it into meaningful phrases and sentences in natural language — words or information that can be analyzed. NLG automatically generates narratives that explain insights from structured data, as human analysts do, but at the speed of thousands of pages per second.

One of the big areas that Arria focuses on is financial reporting, making sense of profit-and-loss statements, cash-flow reports and balance sheets. “This is something that every business has to do: crunching numbers. … We can turn that data, financial data, into a fully written report in seconds.”

Another use case for Arria software is investment fund reporting. Businesses have to filter through a lot of data to get to the insights that will impact whatever affects a fund’s performance, Daniels said.

“Fund performance commentary is really important because stocks are going up and down, and not only do the managers want to see what’s going on, they want to be able to communicate that very clearly to their clients, who are going to be ringing them up asking ‘what’s going on with my portfolio?’ With a push of a button, Arria can provide fully written reports to say what’s going on with the data,” Daniels told us.

Arria works in tandem with Microsoft Power BI to bring more context to the two-dimensional charts and graphs that the BI product creates. For example, if someone wants to know sales by country, region, salesperson, and by top product and margin, they can see that through visuals. “What Arria does, after you select all those same things, is create a fully written report, bringing all of that together, telling you about your sales report in a fully contextualized and comprehensive manner.”

The product is fast-tracking what the company now calls “augmented analytics,” enhancing the analytics capability, but it’s also reducing the room for interpretation, Daniels said. “What sometimes happens in the real world is that people overlook something; they’re missing the value that’s within the data. Arria’s technology brings that value out in the narrative.”

Daniels is extremely excited about the integration of Arria with Microsoft Excel, which allows any of Microsoft’s 1.2 billion users of the product to generate a narrative from Excel spreadsheets within their workflow. “We’re not asking anybody to change their workflow, to go outside of the application. You don’t have to jump from Excel to another application. If you’re an expert, you get speed and efficiency. If you’re not an expert, you get access to expertise because we’re doing all the writing of the analytics expert. You never have to spell check. You never have to check your grammar or your punctuation.”

“We’ve done all the computational linguistics, with advanced analytics built into the algorithms, so we’re turning, you know, just 10,000 rows, a 50-column-wide Excel spreadsheet into a bullet-filled written report, pulling important insights to the surface,” she said. And if the facts change or you need to include another data set, “all you have to do is regenerate the report.”

Daniels says that the product democratizes expertise, leveling the playing field. People don’t have to be an expert to be able to deliver a well-written, comprehensive report, and so it’s highlighting these tools and capabilities much more in companies. It empowers people with information that would otherwise be caught up in silos.

Daniels told us that the company is finding it easy to hire for top-level positions in New Jersey.

“We’ve just hired a CFO, which is a really tough position to fulfill. And we had a number of excellent candidates. New Jersey is great, I have to say. I’m born and raised in New Jersey.”

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