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My Friend AI app aims to help youngsters with mental health issues

Strategia Data Sciences is developing a platform so schools can use technology to aid their students

An image of Stephen Smith, CEO of Strategia Data Sciences, a man with short cropped grey hair wearing a T-Shirt and a dark jacket
Strategia Data Sciences CEO Stephen Sharp

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It took me a while to get what Strategia Data Sciences’ project is all about.

The company, which has offices at Canary Wharf’s tech community – Level39 – has created My Friend, a digital platform aimed at helping identify and address mental health issues in children

This is a big problem. In 2022 about 25% of those aged 17-19 were thought to have a mental health disorder (up from one in six in 2021).

Around half of such issues are thought to become established before the age of 14 and about 10% of children aged five to 16 in Great Britain may have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.

I realise after my interview with Strategia CEO, Stephen Sharp, that comprehending what he and the team are trying to do is tough.

That’s because it requires an unpleasant admission that – despite the backdrop of grim statistics – kids are being failed by what’s currently in place and things seem to be getting worse. 

It’s not that the idea of using an AI-powered avatar to help children with their mental health is better than face-to-face human interaction.

It’s that, for many right now there isn’t really a lot of help available – few nets to catch this sort of thing early.

An image of a lonely boy looking out from a rain-streaked glass balcony
Strategia has create My Friend to help address mental health issues in children

building solutions

“Strategia was set up to create innovative technology in areas such as health, education, sustainability and the environment,” said Stephen.

“I spent about 40 years working in investment banking technology and had a good career in that.

“But I wanted to do something that could give back to society, that would help people in need.

“A colleague of mine who works in Dubai had been talking to a school out there about something completely different but there were some proper horrors that really resonated with him.

“So we started talking about how we could build a solution – an application – that might help kids in school. 

“We did some research and found there were lots of text-based things where kids could  send questions and get answers.

“But then, the next thing was they were being told they should talk to a psychologist for $150 an hour.

“We decided we didn’t want to go down that path. Instead, we’ve been working with conversational artificial intelligence since January.

“AI is transformational and we’ve got to the point where we’re running a pilot in a number of countries with children talking to our app and getting the right responses.

“It’s built on the back of ChatGPT – as everything is these days – but we’ve created the model in the middle, which controls the input and output. It’s always supportive, passive and acts as a friend.”

A girl sits alone reading a textbook in a classroom
My Friend offers children a way to interface with their school through an AI-powered app

branding My Friend

Specifically, My Friend features Kano, an avatar designed to appeal to the app’s audience of eight-to-12-year-olds.

“We’ve gone with a non-gendered super hero teddy bear and his pet dog,” said Stephen.

“We didn’t want there to be any gender or race barriers to using the app or to get involved with political issues in what we’re doing. 

“The platform works in partnership with a child’s school. Staff can monitor the conversations a child has with it so, if a kid is being naughty in class, for example, they might be able to see why.

“It’s important, of course, that the children know this up front – that they’re aware their issues can be addressed.

“The platform forms a neutral, objective interface between the child and the school and removes any bias. 

“It’s also designed to remove any concern a child might have about talking to an adult if they have a problem. 

“With My Friend, they’re talking to a character who’s on their wavelength.

“It’s not just communicating about their challenges either – during testing, children have asked Kano about dinosaurs, for example, and the platform can give them information like this too.

“At present the application is browser-based, but we’re working on turning it into an app which could be accessed via the iPads kids are routinely given.

“Today there are 740million children in primary schools – if we help only 0.01%, that’s beginning to change the way people think.”

Much has been written about the potential fragility of AI – it’s capacity to simply make up plausible-sounding facts and present them as truth in what the tech community charmingly refer to as “hallucinations”. 

But the Strategia is well aware of the potential pitfalls and believes it has created enough safeguards and guide rails to prevent My Friend pushing out nonsense.

A boy sits alone with a teddy bear on some wooden planks
Mental health issues can start early in childhood

safeguarding My Friend’s users

“We’ve been really prescriptive about the responses it gives,” said Stephen.

“If a kid wants help, the app will seek to understand what the problem is and present a congenial approach to the conversation.

“Everything we’ve seen it produce has been accurate – we’ve asked it all kinds of nasty things, including whether it will help build a bomb and we’ve always had the right responses.

“In that case, it simply told me it was illegal and changed the subject. 

“We’re precise in what we do, so our first question was how we get the technology to stay honest and protect the children using it.”

My Friend is still at the testing phase so Stephen and the team don’t yet have all the answers.

They’re still working on how schools will use the platform, which might see conversations colour-coded to help organisations identify potential problems – but feedback has been very positive.

Stephen was keen to stress that no personal data on the children is collected by Strategia, with only the schools able to see who is talking to Kano. 

Based at Level39 since October, the team is keen to collaborate locally as the project unfolds.

tacking a range of issues with My Friend

“We’re trying to build something that can address a whole spectrum of problems children face,” said Stephen.

“I live in a small village in Buckinghamshire and, until I spoke to a local school, didn’t realise the poverty in what I thought was an affluent area. 

“There, a single parent might have three jobs – their child might have to go to school alone, come back alone and cook their own tea.

“If that’s a seven-year-old, for example, that neglect is frightening.

“For children everyday life can be a problem and we want to help.

“If we save one life by doing this, it will be worthwhile.”

key details

You can find out more about Strategia Data Sciences and My Friend via the company’s website as it continues to develop and trial the technology.

Find out more about Strategia Data Sciences here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Royal Docks: How the London Blockchain Conference is focused on finding practical applications as the technology matures

Conference director Alex Stein and sponsor Richard Baker of Tokenovate talk innovation and efficiency

Tokenovate’s Richard Baker will be speaking at the conference

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Blockchain is one of those technologies that can be daunting in its vastness.

First conceived in the early 1990s, not much happened until 2009, when Bitcoin arrived and its profile rose as the system underpinning that and other cryptocurrencies.

Then there was the mostly art-focused explosion and crash of the non-fungible tokens or NFT market.  

But quietly in the background – while the hype has raged – bright minds have been carefully considering what blockchain might most functionally and profitably be used for now and in the future.

What applications does an immutable, secure ledger for practically any kind of data, protected by encryption and distributed across a network of computers, actually have? 

It’s that question which lies at the heart of the forthcoming London Blockchain Conference – a gathering of experts, companies and individuals.

Set to be held at Excel from May 21-23, 2024, the event expects to attract more than 5,000 delegates in person who will be able to listen to more than 150 speakers and dozens of cutting-edge exhibitors working in the sector.

“Its purpose is to move the needle forward on enterprises and governments adopting blockchain technology,” said Alex Stein, conference director.

“What we want to do is cut through a lot of the conversations, which tend to be about cryptocurrencies.

“The event is about how useful the technology can be and its impact, looking holistically across different industries and government – we want to bring everyone together to move those discussions forward and educate people. 

“We’ve held conferences around the world on this topic but last year we made the decision to find a home in London.

“It makes sense because it’s a hub for fintech, finance and regulation, all of which are very important for the technology. 

“That’s why we’ve based it here and renamed it the London Blockchain conference.

“We want it to be the main event for businesses in Europe, and eventually globally, which will show people the practical applications of the technology – people who want to get together and talk about problems and solutions to them.

“This is the event for people with questions about blockchain to find answers – perhaps you’re the person who has been tasked with looking into a solution for your company or you’re a CEO or founder who would like to know more.

“The event is an amazing opportunity to be at the forefront of the technology and to meet people from startups, scaleups, investors and big companies.”

London Blockchain Conference director Alex Stein

One of those individuals will be Richard Baker, founder and CEO at conference sponsor Tokenovate.

He’s an electronics and telecommunications engineer by background and a self confessed lover of low-level engineering – good products and good systems, as he puts it.

“As a technologist, I always look at things through that lens,” said Richard.

“As an exhibitor of applications on blockchain I think the conference is at the heart of what London has always been really excellent at – curating the many faces of financial service offerings both nationally and internationally. 

“Tokenovate specialises in derivative trading  – we’ve built the next generation life cycle engine. 

“It’s a platform for how derivatives are getting tokenised, expressed as smart contracts and executing their life-cycle events on a blockchain. 

“There is no doubt in my mind of the journey that’s under way in financial services – not just in London, but globally.

“We’re seeing something in the order of $16trillion of assets expected to be tokenised in the next five to 10 years – land, property, commercial real estate, bonds and more. 

“This is probably one of the most exciting financial services transformations we have seen in 40 years – a real overhaul – and the economics that go with it as we adopt this new way of expressing value and building products.

“This conference touches on a lot of those really important characteristics.    

“In my humble opinion, blockchain has been one of the slowest technologies to come to market.

“It’s been more than 15 years and there has been a lot of misdirection with the journey of cryptocurrencies – but now we’re seeing businesses and organisations around the world look at it as an infrastructure technology, really focusing on its utility value.

“That’s what this conference is about.”

Both Alex and Richard agree that the potential for the technology is huge, making discussion of its implications and regulation essential.

“It’s fantastic to have people like Richard at the forefront to push the boundaries of what this technology can do,” said Alex.

“There are so many sectors that can be touched by blockchain, such as supply chains and healthcare as well as local and national government.

“There are so many opportunities and we want people to be able to see how blockchain can be a part of their digital transformation.

The conference is taking place at Excel in Royal Docks

“The point of the technology is to make things quicker, cheaper and better. What blockchain gives you in terms of its scalability, speed and stability will eventually change the world.

“It will become the plumbing that everyone expects to be in place and relies on to do business. In 10 years we’ll talk about it in less depth because it will be there.”

Richard added: “As a technologist, I often think in terms of 100 years.

“We’re only 30 or 40 years into a meaningful part of the digital age.

“Built into Tim Berners- Lee’s World Wide Web protocol is the fact that the internet was conceived as a medium of exchange for data but not money.

“There has always been a gap for the right financial system to be plugged in and that’s part of the journey we’re on in society. 

“Crypto has been a use case for the technology – it’s animated how smart contracts work, tokenising things and what a modern marketplace could look like and it’s certainly accelerated G20 regulators looking at blockchain and asking how it will apply to traditional instruments.

“I also echo what Alex says, that as a society we’re increasingly looking for provenance.

“In food, for example, using blockchain as an immutable, time-stamped record keeper, you could know when something was pulled out of the ground, when it was shipped, what the weather conditions were like and who the farmer was.

“I’m sorry to say this but we do live in a world where trust is being increasingly re-sought.

“We have a lot of disinformation and immutable record keeping is one mechanism we can use to help us re-establish that trust. I think it has an important role to play.”

The conference is pitched at all levels with the aim of including as many organisations as possible, so there’s very much a place for those whose understanding of the technology is rudimentary.

“On day one in the morning, we host a session called Blockchain 101,” said Alex. “We also have a session on what a smart contract is and so on.

“We’re located two minutes and 57 seconds from Canary Wharf or 14 minutes from Tottenham Court Road – there’s a whole expo floor and so much content and networking to get involved with.

“I just love bringing people together, out of the office, for face-to-face conversations.

“There will also be a fantastic, informal drinks reception on the first night, which will be really lively. 

“Having lived through the pandemic, when conferences were digital, it’s great to be hosting live events.

“Before the Elizabeth Line was in place, Excel used to feel a little out of the way but now it’s so well connected to the rest of London.

“Our event will take place in its dedicated conference centre, which is perfect for the kind of programme we’re hosting – although we’re certainly looking to the future and will perhaps one day occupy one of its halls.”

Anyone interested in exhibiting at the London Blockchain Conference or participating in its event can find full listings and information online.

Excel is easily reached from Canary Wharf in less than three minutes via the Elizabeth Line

WHAT’S ON

There’s a wealth of potential topics, but what can delegates expect from the event at Excel in May?

“We’ve got seven content-led tracks across three stages, our visionary stage, our big keynote stage and our inside stage – meant for panel-led discussions,” said Alex. 

“There’s also our spotlight stage out on the exhibition floor, so there’s great variation in what’s on offer.

“We’ll have session on the regulatory side of things, blockchain and AI plus blockchain and the Internet Of Things.

“We’ll be looking at business cases and opportunities to innovate in all of these areas.”

In addition to Richard, confirmed speakers include representatives from Channel 4,  nChain, Business Kitz, Ayre Ventures, BSV Blockchain, Project Babbage, Gate2Chain and Family Office Venture Capital.

—–

key details

The London Blockchain Conference is set to take place at Excel in Royal Docks over three days from May 21-23, 2024.

Excel is easily accessed via Custom House station on the Elizabeth Line (less than three minutes from Canary Wharf) or Prince Regent DLR.

Networking tickets for the event cost £49, while three-day delegate passes are £399. VIP access costs £799.

Group discounts are available for those buying three or more conference passes.

Find out more about the London Blockchain Conference here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Technology: How SWR Business Direct offers rail bookings across the country

Platform allows seamless ticket purchases and travel policy tracking for SMEs

SWR has created its Business Direct platform to help firms manage their travel

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“If you’re looking to save money as a small or medium-size company, you need to have a travel policy in place,” said Joe Thurgood, sales manager at South Western Railway (SWR).

With the post-pandemic return to face-to-face meetings, making journeys to attend events or spend time with clients has been back on the agenda for some time.

That means organisations of all kinds returning – or in the case of some more recent startups, beginning – to booking travel for people to get them to where they need to be efficiently.

It’s something the company Joe works for is taking seriously – developing the SWR Business Direct platform to enable users to book journeys across the whole country, not just on its own trains.

“It’s free to sign up, there are no fees on top of the fares and it’s very easy to use,” said Joe.

“It takes businesses about 20 minutes to set up an account and then there’s a dedicated customer service team to look after clients.

“We also offer online training in how to use the platform, though it’s been designed to be as simple as possible.

“It offers businesses the ability to track bookings that are made and to generate reports that tell them who travelled when and where they went.

“There are also custom fields that can be used to capture things like PO numbers, the department an individual works in or the customer they were going to visit.

“Users can make things as detailed or as simple as they like, so they can easily see whether the firm is operating in line with a travel policy.

Bookings on the platform can be made for journeys across Britain

“Customers can set up different users with different roles.

“For example, a director might be able to travel first class or to book those seats only if the journey is longer than an hour. 

“You can put all this information into the platform, so it acts accordingly when a person wants to make a booking.

“One of the other things it does is that it will show users all of the prices available for their journey.

“That’s in contrast to some other apps that might only offer the cheapest.

“This means you can see options that might be more appropriate – adding on ferry tickets or a TfL Travel Card, for example, to ensure you are buying what you need.”

With the majority of companies taking greater care with their environmental impact, SWR Business Direct also has a built-in tool to help firms assess this.

“You can track your carbon footprint if you’re serious about your green agenda,” said Joe.

“At any point, the platform will provide a detailed report on that, which is something businesses increasingly want to talk about.”

SWR, which operates a network of services from Waterloo to destinations including Exeter, Portsmouth, Weymouth, Reading and Guildford, created the tool in a bid to offer companies and their employees a frictionless way of booking travel on the railways.

“If you’re a large organisation, it’s likely you have a travel policy that’s saving you millions of pounds,” said Joe.

“For small and medium-size businesses, saving money is even more imperative – managing your cash flow is vital – and you need to be meeting clients, tendering for new business or travelling to see existing customers to improve retention. It also helps guard against fraud. 

“We are always happy to talk to organisations to discuss a policy or to help them come up with one.

“When it comes to train travel, that doesn’t always mean just booking the cheapest fare on offer. 

SWR is set to receive a new fleet of 90 Arterio trains

“Especially with smaller organisations, there’s a focus on caring for the wellbeing of staff and so they may be happier paying for a slightly pricier ticket if it means members of their team are less stressed when travelling.

“That might mean being able to listen to a podcast or catching up on work on the train rather than being stuck in a queue of traffic.

“That way companies know staff will arrive at their destination relaxed and ready to work.

“It might also mean having a flexible ticket so, if a meeting finishes early or is cancelled in a certain location, the employee has the ability to get a different train rather than wasting time.”

SWR is currently targeting small and medium-size organisations and those who book travel within them, such as PAs, EAs and office managers.

To that end, the company is sponsoring The PA Show Autumn, which is set to take place on October 17, 2023, at Old Billingsgate on the edge of the Thames.

The platform is always online, allowing users to make and plan bookings at any time and there are no fixed contracts for clients.

The platform offers comprehensive information across Britain

In addition to featuring the lowest fares available for any given journey, the platform allows customers to purchase season tickets individually or in bulk, and to benefit from a range of discounts and offers – including up to 34% off when booking three or more tickets via GroupSave.

The service provides both digital eTickets and paper tickets, which can be collected from any station in the country without the need to present a company credit card.

Business travellers on SWR services can expect free Wi-fi at stations and on board all trains, as well as quiet carriages on selected services.

First class facilities include large tables and at-seat wireless charging.

The railway is also set to receive a fleet of 90 new Arterio trains that will operate on its network, promising better performance, greater capacity, air conditioning, cycle racks and charging points for every seat.

Find our more about SWR Business Direct here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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