Blog Post

Columnar Data Transformation Engine: Automating RFP Forever

Blog Post

Sparsh Kedia Profile

Sparsh Kedia

Staff Data Scientist
Ushur
in

Columnar data files are the dominant form used for exchanging information across industries like FMCG, Shipping, Finance, Insurance and others. The row-column format creates an  understandable and recognized mechanism for sharing information  which also happens to be easy-to-digest for digital processing. A lot of financial decisions and estimations are made off of information stored in rows and columns and colloquially the files are referred to as CSV’s (comma separated values). However, Microsoft Excel has quickly become the industry standard for visually processing CSV’s and it provides added user functionality like embedded tables, and the concept of “Sheets” where information can be logically partitioned. 

There are many business conversations where data is exchanged via Excel/CSV files, and a classic example in the insurance industry is the dialogue between insurance brokers and insurance carriers. Here, CSV files are used to exchange information during the RFP (Request for Proposal) phase. The US has many insurance brokers. Brokers vary from individuals doing part-time work to small companies that employ a few people all the way to large brokers that employ hundreds of brokers.

When brokers meet prospective companies and need to quote them for their insurance needs, each broker communicates in their own styles and lexicon to represent the information they’ve gathered. For example, a simple column to represent “Date of Birth” can appear as “DOB”, “Birth date”, “Employee dob” and so on. Now, multiply that variability with about 100 columns of data for each customer and you understand why automating the process is so complex. 

Adding Efficiency in Insurance

Automation and Efficiency are the primary goals of many carriers in the insurance industry in 2023. As more and more carriers automate portions of their backend and quote processes, discontinuity in data format and structure are exceedingly difficult to manage and thus need a lot of manual back-and-forth. It is estimated that in many cases, it may take anywhere from 1 to 5 days to clean and structure all information in formats necessary to correctly persist information in their System of Records (SOR’s).

This is where the Ushur Data Transformation Engine comes in and makes an immediate impact – adding automation to an intractable problem which was dominated by manual operations, and providing a high degree of efficiency by dramatically reducing the time taken to process the entire workflow.

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Key features of the Ushur solution

  • Recognizes hundreds of variances in incoming file data spread across numerous rows and columns
  • Intelligently classifies each data column to an appropriate category
  • Transforms variations of incoming Excel/CSV files into a normalized format
  • Presents the data in a manner that the customers’ Systems of Record can easily ingest automatically

Key implications of the Ushur solution

  • 100s of variant documents converted to simple, single format
  • Easy to integrate to customer database (DB)/systems
  • Significantly reduces time for manual processing. Currently, this process takes around 1-5 days manually. With automation we are processing 200+ cases per day with an average execution time of 3 mins.
  • Easy to add more automation steps as the customer begins to see the value in such transformation

RFP Automation in Action

In the RFP process,  an insurance carrier typically receives hundreds of RFP requests per day. These RFP requests usually arrive in the form of emails being sent by the brokers to the sales executives. Among the numerous attachments, there is an excel file containing census information. This information generally includes: names of employees, birth dates, classes of employment, products required, premiums, specific clauses such as Cobra, eligibility for each member and so on. 

This extraordinarily manual process invites automation to save on time and expense, and prevent overworked employees from introducing errors in data. Automating it, however, requires intimate knowledge of the process, a data standardization and cleaning routine, and user-friendly tools.

Document normalization

As Ushur went about solving this problem, we overcame many engineering challenges, some of which are listed below: 

  • Noise in excel files: Incoming excel files contain a lot of noisy and irrelevant information that is not required for standardizing the document. Ushur also sees numerous sheets in the same file – some of which are example data, standardized insurance tables and so on. The document transformation engine identifies such extra data in the file and is able to filter them out before it is transferred to the downstream processes. This is an important step to clean up the input file so that the probability of downstream errors are reduced.
  • Filtering out irrelevant files: In certain use-cases (RFP for example), these files are usually attached in an email and include other supporting documents some of which are not relevant for the transformation operation. The Ushur document transformation engine identifies the valid attachments by classifying them and then eliminating extraneous documents to optimize processing.
  • Tackling variation from multiple brokers: The representation of data within these Excel files is myriad due to brokers all across the globe. Even though the information that is present is similar, the way it is represented in the Excel file widely varies. For example, the date of birth can be represented in forms like date of birth, birth date, DOB etc. Recognizing categories of variations is important to ensure consistency.
  • Effective way of ensuring data consistency: There are multiple enterprise use-cases which leverage this engine. This results in use-case specific transformations and validations. To enable citizen developers to self-use this product, an effective and easy way of representing these customisations is one of the biggest challenges in solving this problem.
  • Large files: Large Excel files (around 10k rows and 250 columns) have to be normalized quickly and at scale. Hence, focus on quality and latency is of utmost importance to ensure any automation creates value. 

The Ushur Approach

Ushur begins with table extraction. The data users want usually resides in tables within these excel files. Surrounding the tables are huge chunks of irrelevant data such as legends, demography info, huge headers, titles and other noise. The extraneous noise affects the performance of downstream tasks such as classification and transformation. The Ushur novel table extraction algorithm helps us to effectively customize table extraction for multiple use-cases. We use a combination of NLP and Vision Techniques to solve this problem.

The next step is column classification. Ushur recognises different column headers and normalizes them into CRM accepted headers. Since these excel files are sent by multiple brokers from around the world, the variation in representation of the data is immense. Ushur’s domain specific models help to cater to use-cases per domain.

The final steps are transformation and validation. A lot of transformations and validations are required to be performed on these normalized input tables. This ensures data consistency and easy feed into the customer’s system of record. Since, this is a highly customizable problem depending on various use-cases, it’s imperative that we enable citizen developers to perform these operations at their convenience. We enable this by the mechanism of “rules”. We have created our own rule language that end users can use to write their rules. 

Once we have executed the above steps, we now have a clean, normalized and consistent excel file. We send back this asset as an excel file or as a JSON to be fed into the customer’s CRM. 

Conclusion

Ushur’s columnar data transformation engine is a part of the patented Ushur Document Intelligence Services Architecture (DISA) and deployed within Ushur Intelligent Document Automation™ (IDA). DISA applications have led to significant improvements in business metrics for our customers – in one case, one of Ushur’s clients was able to reduce manual labor from 30-36 hours to about 3 minutes, and see many examples where there was no human intervention of any kind, freeing up agents to focus on high-touch, more meaningful interactions, rather than back office tasks. Best of all, the ability to create new rules very quickly via the Ushur no-code flowbuilder enables Ushur to provide ROI to customers in days.

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