Allstate NI partners with Ulster University to drive technological innovation

By Kathryn Harkin, Allstate NI Senior Manager, AI COE

Kathryn Harkin.

How Allstate needs to protect its customers in the future is changing and that comes down to, in no small part, the capabilities of emerging technologies. Across sectors we're seeing how digital technologies are being used to completely reimagine the business landscape and the protection industry is no different. With new technologies coming at us at ever increasing rates, this means that the opportunities for the future are constantly advancing. We see evidence of that today, where things that seemed impossible a decade ago are now taken for granted. This dynamic environment provides new challenges and risks, as well as opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship to create value and positive impact.

So, what does the future potentially look like? We know that data is coming at us from an ever-increasing variety of sources. In the future, protection products will be priced according to human behavior and will no longer be determined by defining risk buckets. The traditional model of insurance is threatened by how our lifestyles are changing, for example, the auto market is shrinking and many people may not even own a car in the future. How does Allstate stay relevant to effectively address the hypercompetitive global scene that we find ourselves in? New markets are required to assure Allstate's future, how do we determine what those new markets are and what products are needed?

Partner to drive technological innovation.

To remain out front Allstate needs to pay attention to what's out there and universities play a crucial role in supporting industry's quest to stay at the forefront of technological innovation in today's knowledge-based society. Allstate know they can't do it all, but they see early signals of what is going to be the next big opportunity. Universities are at the cutting-edge of research, which can help stimulate companies' internal innovation programs, and working together means we can get a head start on the competition.

To successfully do this means moving beyond the conventional exchange of research for funding or engagement on one-off ad-hoc projects, to building more long term, strong, collaborative relationships based on mutual respect for the value that both parties can bring to the table. This allows companies like Allstate to stay continuously connected to early stage research and incorporate broader views, experiences and perspectives when focusing on particular problems.

Allstate NI's relationship with Ulster University (UU) has flourished over a number of years. This partnership spans from Allstate NI's representation on UU's industrial advisory boards, to involvement in reviewing curricula for undergrad and postgrad courses, student scholarships and prizes, running and judging student hackathons, to providing industry guest lectures and academics presenting in Allstate.

Over that time, we have also been invited by UU to develop a vision for a new initiative called CARL (Cognitive Analytics Research Lab) which was to be based at their Magee Campus. This vision was developed through design thinking workshops with a small number of industry partners, including Allstate NI. November 2019 saw the opening of a new state of the art Allstate NI computing lab, also at the Magee campus. Other notable engagements have included academic-industry meetups, bringing together Ulster University's leading academics with Allstate senior leaders. The purpose of which was to educate Ulster University on the breadth of Allstate NI's business and the challenges we face, and also for Allstate NI to learn about the University's research strengths and exciting areas they are currently exploring and leading in. In 2020 Allstate wanted to take the relationship to the next level and leverage the world class expertise that UU have built in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) over the last 20 years, including intelligent data analytics, computer vision, Internet of Things (IOT) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques.

An example of this closer working relationship is a recent research collaborative effort with Professor Damien Coyle, Dr Magda Bucholc and their PhD student Salman Ahmed using advanced multi-modal analytics approach to help predict major incidents in our infrastructure at the earliest opportunity, allowing us to put preventative measures in place.

Jonathan Wallace, Professor of Innovation within the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment and Chair of the Faculty's Computing Employer Advisory Board (CEAB), said:
"The Computing Schools at Ulster University greatly value the strong proactive collaborative relationship they have had with Allstate NI for many years. We recognise the strategic importance of developing professional, educational and collaborative research links, showcasing the breadth of career opportunities at Allstate NI to the next generation of IT talent graduating from our undergraduate and postgraduate courses, as well as collaborating on research to keep the company at the forefront of a rapidly evolving technological landscape.

In November 2019 we opened a state of the art computing lab at Ulster's Magee campus sponsored by Allstate NI. We have followed on from this by launching a research partnership linking academics and PhD students from both Computing Schools with Allstate's AI Centre of Excellence team to explore how AI and ML techniques developed at Ulster can be applied to the next generation of Allstate products and services, indeed planning for a second joint 'Learnathon' / Mini-Conference to showcase how Ulster's leading edge research can potentially address the short mid and long-term strategic goals of Allstate NI is currently underway. Allstate NI senior software engineers have delivered a number of industry guest lectures on the M.Sc. programmes at both Computing Schools. Allstate NI also hosted a very successful 'hackathon' in conjunction with the Ulster Student Computing Society in March 2021. We are also grateful to Allstate NI for their continued support through Postgraduate scholarships including for the M.Sc. in A.I. within the School of Computing as well as prizes and travel funds."

Due to the time and effort that has been invested by both parties over the years, a greater understanding is being developed around how we can better collaborate together moving forward. This allows us to be less reactionary and more intentional when opportunities arise to seek external funding or to move quickly on a research opportunity of mutual interest. Traditionally, academic centers and industry have been challenged due to the lens of opportunity on which they are focused. Companies are often focused on improving existing business models and processes. These are near-term opportunities with tangible benefits, that can be easier to get moving. However, university research groups are often interested in the un-tested, exploratory and potentially disruptive ideas that industry may not even have thought of yet. Forward thinking companies will also need to have a lens on what those future opportunities might mean for their business in terms of the creation of new business perhaps even outside the sector they currently operate in.

To be successful, both parties need to embrace these challenges. Constantly ask what problems are we trying to solve and consider new technologies and new opportunities, which can come from unexpected places. Allstate look forward to continuing to partner with Ulster University on exciting and potentially disruptive opportunities, whilst also playing our part in building out the local ecosystem of strong technological talent.