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Interview: Sam Lowe, chief technology officer, Streetbees

Streetbees’ first IT chief brings artificial intelligence expertise to help the tech startup deliver a hive of data for its customers

Global intelligence supplier Streetbees has, until now, managed without a head of IT, but this changed when the company needed someone with expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) to help it achieve its next goal.

The company recently named Sam Lowe as its first ever chief technology officer (CTO). Lowe is tasked with taking the company to the cutting edge of technology, while also wrestling with the challenge of scaling an IT department.

Streetbees is an intelligence platform startup that provides an alternative to traditional market research by paying people, known as bees, to share information about brands in real time on its platform.

A CTO with AI expertise was top of the list when the company embarked on its next stage of development, which involved the creation of a huge data platform.

This strategy involves extensive use of AI and machine learning technology as the company, which processes and structures data generated by humans, seeks to rival the likes of Google in this field.

Bees collect brand data 

There are now about one million “bees” around the world today, who are paid to answer questions about brands and their buying habits, and feed information, including videos and pictures, to the Streetbees engine, via smartphones. The platform, which uses natural language processing technology, provides an up-to-date and accurate dataset.

This gives customer businesses up-to-date data on consumer behaviour, enabling them to proactively stay on top of their sectors rather than simply reacting to problems.

Brands in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, such as Unilever, Nestlé and Pepsi, already use the platform to better understand consumers. Streetbees is now moving into the tech and media sectors, working with customers such as The Economist and the BBC.

Businesses pay to subscribe to the service, and have the option to run tailored projects where Streetbees focuses its bees on specific products or services. Most projects so far have been one-offs for customers, but Streetbees is planning to bring all of its data together so it can offer an up-to-date data pool containing everything a customer might want to know about current trends.

It is this stage of growth that instigated the need for a CTO.

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Sam Lowe, a graduate of computer science from Imperial College London, was brought in to head up the IT department and lead this project. He was previously CTO and head of AI at Your.MD, an artificial intelligence-powered health information service. Previously, he headed up the technology transformation project at fashion retailer, and founded and led the UK digital technology practice at IT services supplier Capgemini.

A hive of consumer activity

Streetbees collects large volumes of unstructured data in various formats, which it plans to better understand and disseminate through technologies such as AI.

“The two areas I will be focusing on are increasing the use of AI to draw out insights, and creating a great big dataset with knowledge from across all the services we offer,” Lowe tells Computer Weekly.

The challenge means Streetbees’ tech teams have to be near the front line of AI developments, says Lowe. “The data platform will be core to the business. AI research is moving incredibly fast, but some of the problems we are working on are not even solved yet in research,” he says.

“This is an incredible opportunity to build a truly innovative tech platform – growing the dataset created together with our users, ensuring it is statistically valid and protected from the biases that blight many sources, and building a machine understanding that can dynamically and continuously interpret and draw insights from it,” says Lowe.

“This combination will enable us to create new breakthrough capabilities,” he enthuses.

To support the project, Streetbees will also need a good supply of tech professionals, with the greatest need being for machine learning engineers, data scientists and mobile developers.

The demand for talent has driven Streetbees to expand to new locations. As well as its London operation, the company also has operations in New York, Lisbon and Prague. The Lisbon and Prague offices will help the company attract talent in the European Union (EU), despite the UK’s planned exit from the EU and the rules around free movement that go with it.

“This helps us get the best talent,” says Lowe.

He points out that EU citizens are already leaving the UK. In fact, the Streetbees offices in Prague and Lisbon were set up staff in London who then went back to their home countries and set up there. “This gives us three locations in Europe where we can look for tech talent,” says Lowe.

Beyond developing the data engine, as the company grows, Lowe will also be tasked with scale the IT operation. It now has around 100 staff, with about 30 of these in the tech team. This compares with about 20 in June 2016, when Computer Weekly last spoke to the company.

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