Episode 9 – Francesca Gomez

Emerging Tech Talks interviews Francesca Gomez, Co-Founder of Smarter Human. Francesca talks graph databases, the Panama Papers, women in tech and the importance of diversity.

Full Script:

M4: Good afternoon everyone and welcome to another Emerging Tech Talks podcast with me, Donavan Whyte. Today I have the pleasure of sharing the mike with Francesca Gomez, co-founder and CEO of Smarter Human . Good afternoon Francesca!

FG: Good afternoon!

M4: Glad to have you with us and really, really looking forward to our chat. Just for our listeners I just wanted to say that Smarter Human translates data from financial services firms into meaningful insights so that management can make quick decisions  – and informed decisions – about compliance and risk and etc etc. But today we’re going to be talking about graph databases…. Ugh, I hear you say! So, my first point of reference here, Francesca, I wonder if you could just please tell everyone, what is a graph database?

FG: Good first question! So, when people think around databases, they tend to think around relational databases.These are ways of structuring data and to do a relational database you’d identify all the bits of information that you want to capture, you would define that list of different points and then you would put the data in there. And what you end up with is a list of data which is quite static. So once you’ve made those decisions it’s not very easy to change. Now, a graph database is less around the actual data that’s inside the one table and it’s much more around relationships between different data points. So, a graph database is comprised of something called a node – which is like an entity or an object – and then a relationship. And why it’s really powerful is because you can define relationships between different nodes and you can actually give them attributes. So, if you think around something like social networks, they are all around people and the relationships. A graph database would be at the heart of something like LinkedIn and that’s how they would understand how people know each other, what the relationship between them is and how they can find commonalities between people that may not be immediately linked.

M4: I think I get it, but I’ve got another question for you just on that point. So, what’s changed in terms of technology that’s making graph database now so popular and now something that people can use? Why haven’t they always been able to use it?

FG: So I think the thing which is making graph databases particularly popular… one is around the rate of change now in different data structures. So, previously you would create a relational database and your design of that wouldn’t change very much.  But with a graph database it’s really easy to change that design so you can add on different nodes, you can add on new relationships… the one big thing is the ability to update it easily and I think the second thing is, because of things like the need to be able to look at complex datasets in real-time, the graph database also makes that possible. So, something like the social media one, or being able to find relationships between apparently unrelated data… I think that’s why it’s becoming so popular.

M4: So, why does a company appoint Smarter Human? Why would they want to? What is it they’re looking for and who are your most popular clients that you have, what vertical, what sector? Give us a little bit of information about that please…

FG: Sure – with Smarter Human we’ve developed a technology solution which helps companies manage risk in real-time (so, very quickly) but also helps them understand dependencies between different technologies, different teams and different operations. So we work mainly within the financial services sector and our customers are fintech companies who want to be able to scale quickly and access information on risk and compliance that they may not have internally.  Then we also have customers who are larger banks or building societies and with them it might be around being able to make connections between data and teams which might be in silos – to be able to bring that together to get real-time insights that senior people in risk can act on.

M4: I know that there’s one notable example that we’re going to talk about now and I’d like you – just for our listeners – to try and give a real world example of one that most people would know in terms of the power,I suppose, of the graph database.

FG: Yes, so I think an example which I think really brings the practical application to life is the use of graph databases in discovering the links behind the Panama Papers…

M4: Just for the benefit of people who don’t know what that is…

FG: The Panama Papers were a volume of documents that were leaked and these documents came from a law firm within Panama and they contained a lot of different information – legal documents, emails – all from political people and people within positions of influence globally…

M4: That were allegedly trying to hide their wealth…

FG: Exactly… optimise their wealth, right?

M4: Yeah, you could use that word, optimise…

FG: What it really revealed was how these people concealed or managed to optimise their wealth. And the power of the graph was that they took the metadata from a lot of these documents and they mapped things like different company entities, different people, the roles they had at those companies – be it a director, shareholder – and the addresses of the people and companies. And from that they were able to find connections that weren’t immediately obvious. So they discovered that people were using intermediaries to hide sources of funds, they were using offshore companies with the same addresses between different people and they were able to find these inferences using a graph database.

M4: That’s really powerful, I mean at the end of the day if you are not complying with the law  then it’s an absolutely great use of that technology but there are some ethical challenges aren’t there within that as well? What’s your considerations at Smarter Human around ethical considerations that you need to have and to make sure that you’re somewhere in the middle – you’re doing the right thing?

FG: I think ethical considerations are really important. At the current stage we’re at most of the data we’re handling is around how companies are protecting themselves. So, obviously that’s very sensitive data, but it’s maybe not as personally sensitive as if you’re holding data on individuals. But we are aware that something you’re doing now could actually have unintended consequences later. So we’ve been a testing partner for an organisation called Responsible Technology and they are actually doing initiatives on how tech companies can make sure that what they’re building now doesn’t have unintended consequences.

M4: So, just touching on you now for a second, you’ve got a long history in risk and compliance – 9 years – 9 years is fantastic and you’ve obviously got a lot of experience in tech now as well. So I just wanted to understand what inspired you to get into this particular field and we’ll talk about some other things in a moment but what inspired you to get involved?

FG: So, for me, I was at American Express, I’d actually joined their technologies grad scheme and while I was there they had this incident in Italy whereby the regulators…so the ones that give them their license to do business… did a surprise audit. They came in and they found a number of issues within how they were managing risk so the regulators took away their license to issue credit cards until they were going to fix these issues. So for me, at quite an early stage in my career, I literally saw that it could stop a business and that’s what got me interested in working in risk because I kind of saw, in a regulated industry, it’s really critical… and from there… I just stayed there!

M4: I know that you’re also really passionate about women in tech and women, I suppose, entering the world of the sciences and engineering fields and I know you’ve been involved in motivating and mentoring and I just wondered if you could share some of that with the listeners as well and also maybe offer some advice for women who want to move into this space.

FG: Yeah, I mean I think the reason I feel it’s so important is because when you’re creating technology you can actually… you’re creating the future because technology now it underpins so many fields – having the knowledge and the ability to understand how computers work and how you create applications helps you actually influence the future and I think when you don’t have a good gender diversity you start seeing things like algorithms which are biased because you just don’t have the designers there. So I mean if you’re somewhere like in London where we are with different people from different backgrounds, different nationalities who are getting involved in the tech scene you can build up a network of people who can help in terms of giving advice and helping find career opportunities. And then also – I’d think – use the information that’s online… so like your podcast, to learn about new tech. There’s loads of exercises you can do to try hands-on coding and you’ll find a niche – it’s such a large area.

M4: For me, I think one of the challenges if you are a young lady just finishing school or entering university or finishing university I think it’s that sort of gap – you know, you’re at school, you’ve just done you’re A-levels and you’re not sure what to do and I suppose that’s where some education might be needed. I suppose my question is – do you think the curriculum needs to be changed slightly to help and support that movement of getting more females into the space.

FG: Yeah, I think so and I think at the stage where people are deciding what to do at the next stage they should showcase that it’s not just computer science as the only option. But there are fields… like, my degree was in Artificial Intelligence which meant I did some computer science, some psychology and some study of animal intelligence. And there’s loads of different disciplines you could go into within technology where I think people at the age of A-levels would get really excited about but they’re maybe just not aware that they exist.

M4: Yeah, absolutely. And what’s the piece of tech at the moment that’s exciting you

FG: So for me I still think that the power of cloud technologies is immense and the reason I love it so much is because I think it really democratises technology. So all of the start-ups you see now? That’s possible because they can literally log-on, create an account… plug and play. Before, it would literally be getting physical servers. And they’re really developing the capabilities on the Cloud platforms, so you can plug into things like Machine Learning algorithms, image recognition – there’s like a whole suite of really interesting tech you can use.

M4: And what’s next for Smarter Human?

FG: So we’ve just come to the end of the Barclays and textiles accelerator – we’ve just come to the end of that with demo day tomorrow, so for us it’s really continuing to grow our customer base, continuing to work on our product and really take a lot of the pain out of risk and compliance for organisations that want to use technology and innovate.

M4: Thank you very much for the chat today and good luck with Smarter Human. Hopefully we’ll touch base in 12 months or so to see how you guys are getting on. Thank you very much for sharing the mike today, Francesca.

FG: Thank you it was a pleasure.