Applications of data science and machine learning in financial services

The O’Reilly Data Show Podcast: Jike Chong on the many exciting opportunities for data professionals in the U.S. and China.

In this episode of the Data Show, I spoke with Jike Chong, chief data scientist at Acorns, a startup focused on building tools for micro-investing. Chong has extensive experience using analytics and machine learning in financial services, and he has experience building data science teams in the U.S. and in China.

We had a great conversation spanning many topics, including:

  • Potential applications of data science in financial services.
  • The current state of data science in financial services in both the U.S. and China.
  • His experience recruiting, training, and managing data science teams in both the U.S. and China.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Opportunities in financial services

There’s a customer acquisition piece and then there’s a customer retention piece. For customer acquisition, we can see that new technologies can really add value by looking at all sorts of data sources that can help a financial service company identify who they want to target to provide those services. So, it’s a great place where data science can help find the product market fit, not just at one instance like identifying who you want to target, but also in a continuous form where you can evolve a product and then continuously find the audience that would best fit the product and continue to analyze the audience so you can design the next generation product. … Once you have a specific cohort of users who you want to target, there’s a need to be able to precisely convert them, which means understanding the stage of the customer’s thought process and understanding how to form the narrative to convince the user or the customer that a particular piece of technology or particular piece of service is the current service they need.

… On the customer serving or retention side, for financial services we commonly talk about building hundred-year businesses, right? They have to be profitable businesses, and for financial service to be profitable, there are operational considerations—quantifying risk requires a lot of data science; preventing fraud is really important, and there is garnering the long-term trust with the customer so they stay with you, which means having the work ethic to be able to take care of customer’s data and able to serve the customer better with automated services whenever and wherever the customer is. It’s all those opportunities where I see we can help serve the customer by having the right services presented to them and being able to serve them in the long term.

Opportunities in China

A few important areas in the financial space in China include mobile payments, wealth management, lending, and insurance—basically, the major areas for the financial industry.

For these areas, China may be a forerunner in using internet technologies, especially mobile internet technologies for FinTech, and I think the wave started way back in the 2012/2013 time frame. If you look at mobile payments, like Alipay and WeChat, those have hundreds of millions of active users. The latest data from Alipay is about 608 million users, and these are monthly active users we’re talking about. This is about two times the U.S. population actively using Alipay on a monthly basis, which is a crazy number if you consider all the data that can generate and all the things you can see people buying to be able to understand how to serve the users better.

If you look at WeChat, they’re boasting 1 billion users, monthly active users, early this year. Those are the huge players, and with that amount of traffic, they are able to generate a lot of interest for the lower-frequency services like wealth management and lending, as well as insurance.

[A version of this post appears on the O’Reilly Radar.]

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