Aden Davies

Infrequent Inanity

BarCampBank London 5

The 6th of February was the date for the 5th BarCampBank London. Held at the same loation as last years, Nesta, it brought together around a hundred or so financial service innovation types to discuss the hot topics of the moment. Last year there had been a focus on alternative currencies and economies this year they were largely absent from the sessions (the ones I attended anyway). NFC was also another big topic last year but this year it felt like the disillusionment was setting in.

I was kindly asked by conference organiser Dave Birch to help group the themes from the post it note avalanche at the start of the BarCamp. It allowed me to be biased and shape a session on one of my current pet topics, APIs/Open Data, although to be honest I did not have to be that biased as it was a topic a lot of other people wanted to discuss.

 

‘What does a bank API look like?’ was the question used to frame the discussion. I was asked to lead the talk which was a tad daunting with some of the experts in the room thankfully I don’t think I made too much of an idiot of myself. The first job was to explain what an API was to the mixed knowledge group. An API is an Application Programming Interface and as the name implies it allows programs and services to connect and interact with it to control the business process it sits on top of. My primary focus is around creating APIs to deliver access to a customer’s transaction data so if they so desire they could use a third party PFM, like Mint.

But what is the business benefit of an API? Why would a bank open up its data to 3rd parties when they can keep all that good stuff for themselves? Well the discussion coverd this quite a bit and the conclusion was that the biggest benefit is around internal development. The API should be used to build your own tools. If banks had APIs then building tablet, mobile or Internet Fridge banking apps would be a piece of cake.

Obviously the immediate concern when anyone mentions an API plugged into the financial transaction data of customers is what about the hackers?! Yes an API to financial data would be quite the honey pot but surely these issues can be overcome. If PayPal (the developer arm is now known as  X Commerce) can provide API access to some of its services then why can’t other banks?

In Germany they have had APIs of a sort for quite some time in the form of the FinTS set of services. We were lucky enough to have several people from Germany in the group and they said that while FinTS was useful the way it had been implemented by the banks varied wildly between institutions. Open standards are desperately needed.

We were lucky enough to be joined by Simon Redfern from the Open Bank Project. An organisation looking to build a layer for the banks to plug into and then provide some standard data feeds in JSON with some RESTful APIs to hook into. Unsurprisingly they have not signed up any banks to take this on just yet but on paper this looks like just the kind of thing needed.

We discussed what the role of Swift was in all this. The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication is a global messaging network which deals with payment instructions. They would not really have access to the customer level data I am interested in but it would certainly be interesting to plug an API into this world.

Another angle was the Government. In the UK we have the MiData project kicking off at the moment. With the vision of handing customer data back to the customers. Some banks are signed up to this but as yet the detail around how data will be provided is not that well detailed and I think data extracts maybe preferred over API type access.

This is a really interesting topic that I think will be a major focus for the banking industry over the next 18-24 months.

 

Second session I attended was entitled ‘Does social media change everything or nothing in financial services’ I am not sure about the title of this thing (maybe replace social media with ‘ever evolving web’) but I like the sentiment.

I think the obvious thoughts are the likes of Google and Facebook will sweep aside the banking industry as we know it. I really don’t agree with that. Those companies have no interest in being banks. They might want some of that sweet, sweet financial data to better tune their marketing efforts but they don’t want the hassle of Basel 3 compliance etc.

That being said you cannot ignore the effect the web continues to have on society and banking is certainly not exempt from that. The two networks need to get closer and I believe the two can coexist. The banking one may look a bit long in the tooth comparatively but it is pretty good a transferring trillions of dollars per day without much issue (the small matter of global economics withstanding).

 

My third choice of the day was ‘Can you imagine a world with no POS terminals or plastic payment cards’. Like the previous session the big assumption is that mobile devices will change the way we pay to such an extent these mechanisms of trade will be consigned to the dustbin. Square might be the FS darling in the US at the moment but wide scale merchant usage at a corporate level will not be possible with such a system (the mag stripe alone makes it unusable outside the US). The discussion focussed around what the big players in this market actually do and why displacing them will be very hard.

The key element being the payment schemes and the functionality contained within them e.g. chargebacks, where customers of Visa could demand a refund from them if the goods the customer purchased from a third party were substandard. Are the new players going to be able to build these huge complex processes? The feeling from some part of the group was that this was maybe a bridge too far. This means the big players will probably stay as the big players…also Visa have a pretty big stake in Square anyway.

 

A slightly bizarre end to the day in the form of something that I had found difficult in the last session i.e. imagining a future without something so fundamental to pretty much everything we do today ‘What would be the plot of a movie about the future of the financial system?’.

Now obviously the premise was quickly established that the financial system as we knew it had completely failed (crippling virus or AI reached such a level of sentience that the HFT algorithms ran riot and heavily funded biotech which lead to the creation of an army of financially trading cyborgs that also had a physical presence so they could take over the world or a more plausible continuation of the real world events going on now). Either way the way things work today cease to be. Trying to think through what would happen if you no longer had any access to money. No way to buy. No reason to work. Hording would begin. Looting would break out. Society would surely break down. This would be a pretty depressing dystopian future so we had to try and inject some happy/hippy transitions.

Obviously barter systems would flourish (They have seen a resurgence in Greece recently) and the world would find new means of trade and currency and the things would be right again (as the rebel survivors successfully defeat the evil cyborgs) and no one would ever be short sighted or greedy again. There was a slight twist in the end in the form of a very clichéd cut to an underground bunker with a lone evil banking cyborg that had escaped the cull. Can’t see it getting made any time soon with a plot like that, I also suspect securing funding would be very difficult.

 

I personally got more out of this year’s event over last years. Not sure if that was to do with the more relevant/interesting topics or just feeling more comfortable with the format/audience/my willingness to shoot my mouth off. There was still a lack of (UK) bankers at the event which was a bit of a shame…that being said who wants a load of bankers at an innovation event anyway?

Nice work once again by Mr Birch and his associated organisers. Finovate Europe which was held the day after has meant some of Europe’s smartest in the industry come together in London for a few days. Organising events at either side of it is a no brainer. Same again next year please maybe with a few more events added on to make a week of it.

Posted by Aden Davies on February 14, 2012 | Posted in Banking, Conferences, Innovation | 3 Comments

I am a Government Digital Service fanboy

I am not really a political person. I care little for any of the political parties and their identikit leaders but that government thing is quite important intit?

This post is about the relatively newly formed Government Digital Service team. Set up following recommendations laid out in Martha Lane-Fox’s Digital by Default report. This excellent report proposes a wholesale change to the way Government does IT. Focusing primarily on the digital experience and how government services online operate it also calls for changes to the way IT services are provisioned with regards to large vendors. I am more interested in the customer facing elements but the back end stuff is certainly revolutionary for such a large and bureaucratic organisation. The report states the following about how Directgov needs to refocus (point 4 being the most exciting from my geeky point of view).

The Directgov organisation should reduce and realign its resources to focus on:

1. architecting and managing a more focused consumer proposition

2. providing easy-to-navigate information/guidance to citizens on obligations, entitlements and actions that require interaction with government

3. providing easy to use, effective services that help citizens transact with government online, to drive channel shift

4. creating & agreeing cross-government standards that support our proposed ‘retail to wholesale’ shift, including standards on APIs and use of open technologies to support channel shift, and the stimulation of an eco-system of 3rd party distributors of Directgov content, tools and apps.

I believe there are many parallels with what is being outlined in the report with lots of organisations, banks in particular, and the way they need to adapt to the way the web is evolving and its increasing importance on evy day life. For me the approach being taken with regards to agile development, APIs and service orientated architecure, open source, design at the core and just a general appreciation of doing the web right is what makes this vision so compelling. The fact this being tried inside the government is even more admirable.

Putting their money where their mouth is. Clever words in a PDF are all well and good but to execute that vision you need some talented and smart employees. GDS have certainly hired well. Mike Bracken as Executive Director,  Tom Loosemore as Deputy Director and most recently Ben Terrett to head up design. These are just a handful of the great talent they are amassing but it shows they mean business and this is not some half baked statement of intent but a real desire to improve how government is interfaced with by the majority of people in the UK.

I first became aware of what GDS were trying to achieve in May last year with the launch of the Alpha Gov prototype. This was the starting point for the vision of a single domain for government. They were seeking feedback from the off and it was not just some meaningless one way taking data in. Feedback works both ways and the fact they are using Get Satisfaction to collect it is also impressive. You could see from that early prototype that this was not your normal Government IT project. As well as the technical and design proficiency on show for me other elements showed that this was being designed by humans not some committee. The page for reporting stranded whales shows that humour could creep in and I am glad to see it has stayed in the Beta.

One concept laid out in the original vision is that the site must be designed around customer needs. We see this statement doled out by many organisations but I don’t think many of them really understand it. I love this statement from Ben Terrett’s post about why he joined the team.

The design challenge here seems to be – don’t avoid the obvious. Government websites are needs driven and what people want to do is get in, get what they want and then get out. Quickly.

The UI that gets out of the way will always be the best UI. Now the Government are in a lucky position in that they have no competitors and they don’t have to sell anything so they don’t need to plaster banner adverts everywhere but then again if you are designing a service for your customers and you have to put banner ads in the flow/UI then you don’t really understand the marketing value of a truly beautiful and ‘get out of the way UI’. You can also see from the photo on the left that this team take design very seriously.

 

Yet another area for praise is the use of blogging by this team has been exemplary, it is a real lesson in how to use a corporate blog. Sharing real detail on the what, how and why to their goals. I am not sure if one of the employment criteria was the ability to write well but they don’t seem to struggle for bloggers. The blog has allowed the culture to really come across to interested observers. You can tell that the people believe in the vision and you can tell they are bloody smart. I am not naïve enough to believe it is all a bed of roses, 120 staff means there will be some problems as humans will always be humans, but the clarity of the vision and purpose should at least mean everyone is headed in the right direction.

new GDS stickers

Photo borrowed without permission from Thayer Prime

For me the project should be part of a major technological/organisational case study (Gartner/Forrester should be all over his shit) looking at how IT can be done right in a large bureaucratic organisation not renowned for its IT successes. The starting vision was almost perfect. The way they built a team of real talent showed it was more than words on paper. Execution is always the benchmark and so far they are doing rather well.

The beta site of Gov.UK was launched on the evening of the 31st of January (for loads of detail on this and how they got there read this). The compliments flew by in my Twitter stream as lots of people shared their praise with the team. It was clear they had built on the successes of alpha.gov I n almost every way. The levels of transparency shown already in the project on the blog were trumped by two things they did on launch day. One they released a list of tools and technologies used Not one of these technologies tied them to a vendor. The only person it seems that is getting paid is Amazon who are hosting the site. They way it has been built means that it is portable to any cloud provider. The eventual aim is for it to reside on G-Cloud (the government cloud infrastructure that is being built as part of he wider project). UPDATE: I got this bit wrong, G-Cloud is a framework for buying cloud services, read this http://gcloud.civilservice.gov.uk/. The second thing was the fact they released all the code for the site to the open source repository, GitHub. Meaning anyone can inspect the code, take a copy and fork it to use it for themselves or if you are feeling brave try and make it better. For a government department to do this takes a huge amount of faith and must fly in the face of so many risk and security policies it is untrue. I really can’t imagine a bank ever doing this (Although (Bank) Simple have released some components there).

This post so far has been universally positive, as it should be, but I realise tougher tasks are yet to come for the team. Making the leap from direct.gov.uk to gov.uk will be a complex and tricky one. The flexibility built into gov.uk means that they can iterate constantly so I am guessing there will be no big bang migration just a ‘Well we have moved it all across now let’s switch off the other site’. Which sounds simple…

Looking back over this post it is at best fawning at worst blind slavish fanboy raving so I must find at least one thing to criticise but I have struggled. Here goes…the one thing I don’t like is the strange silvery pick arrow/banner on the home page. I can see how it ‘subtly’ points me to the big red search box but I don’t like the look of it. That is the only thing I have found so far that I don’t like and I really don’t care much about it.

It will be interesting to see how this site progresses over the rest of 2012. How the technology behind scales and improves. How the move to their own cloud goes. I am also interested to see what other elements they will bring to the site. Personalisation being one, especially as the identity used for a government website would be a very interesting thing indeed (NSTIC anyone?).

Lastly I must say a huge congratulations to the team for what they have built and to Martha Lane Fox and her original co-conspirators for creating such a well thought out and worthy vision. The desire to hire the best and the fact that the vision laid out allowed them to do just that has proved very successful indeed. I certainly think all big organisations (banks especially) with responsibility for customer facing IT should take a long hard look at this project and think why can’t this be done here? They would do well to drag themselves into the 21st century and try to emulate this model. The ones that do will be he ones that will begin to look like organisations fit for the 21st century which is exactly what the Government Digital Service looks like.

 

Posted by Aden Davies on February 5, 2012 | Posted in Innovation, Ramblings | 4 Comments

The Design of Understanding

Let’s give this blogging thing another go after a couple of months post free. Last Friday I went to a place in London and listened to some clever people talk about some interesting things at an event called Design of Understanding. Here are some words that don’t do the event justice.

It was an eclectic mixture of speakers brought together by a seemingly nice chap called Max Gadney. He kicked off the day with some words of wisdom, the ones which caught my ear the most was ‘all forms of communication should impart understanding’ be the the way we perceive and use physical device or interpret a barely coherent post. This phrase seemed like a nice framing of the day. Here are some notes on my 3 favourite talks of the day.

Timo Arnall of Berg shared his love of film and how he believed it to be the most powerful means of communication. Berg are interested in how new technologies fit into the world. Film gives them the ability to show time, behaviours and to allow them to unpack (this may have been the most used word of the day) technologies. He showed a beautiful example made by Polaroid in 1972. An 11 minute film by Ray & Charles Eames that explained how the SX-70 folding SLR camera worked. No marketing guff of today but a clear and concise explanation of the science behind the device.

The myths that evolve around technology were another source of interest. RFID technology that is still perceived as a new technology even though there are around 4 billion RFID tags and chips in the world. This technology invokes irrational fears and leads to people creating things like copper wired jeans to block the devices being tracked. Is this in part due to the fact that so few people know how these things actually work? How they interact with the world around them? Berg produced a video visualising the fields around the device by using LEDs and sensors, mixed with long exposure photography.  The resulting video is a thing of beauty.

The use of film in this was by Berg has lead them to create something they are calling new grammar. The video almost becomes the product of their design work. The power of this communication form has been proved many times by Berg. Matt Jones wrote a fascinating piece about new grammar and its origins.

Timo ended with the Heathquote. Wise words from Chris Heathcote of Dentsu.

 ”the world is going to get strange and magical, and people will be confused and fearful. Designers will have to do what they do best, helping people navigate these environments”

RFID (and its bigger brother NFC) will become increasingly used to the point of ubiquity over the next 5-10 years. How these technologies are designed to work in the world will be key. I think Berg will certainly help figure that out.

It was a bloody good start to the day.

 

Just before lunch it was the turn of  James Bridle. Not really sure how to explain who James is or what he does. In Max Gadney’s speaker notes he said this about James, which I think sums hims up very well.

“I am always impressed at how his interest in something means he needs to make it, not just to create an objet d’art but more that in order to investigate and understand he makes the thing”

I agree. He is also whip crack smart and a very funny fella.

One of the similarities between James and Timo’s talk was time. James is interested in the effect time has on things in this digital age. He created a series of books that documented the Iraq War based on every edit to the Wikipedia page about that event. A historiography of argument about a series of facts. James jokingly said that because of his background in publishing he always made books. He has also created a book based on his whereabouts over a whole year based on the tracking data from his iPhone, entitled Where the fuck was I. He has also published 50 versions of the Charles Dickens novel, Hard Times, with each version being slightly different. One edition is translated into Russian and back again into English.

Another element of time mentioned was the penchant for taking photos today with smart phone cameras and applying retro effects. As we strive to get our photos looking like the Polaroids of the 70s what does this do to the perception of time. If we see a street scene with a sepia tint we would assume it was from a bygone age. But what does the future look like? What are the digital effects or the contents of the photo to make it look more futuristic. This lead into one of James’ key themes of interest/research which he has called the New Aesthetic.

“For a while now, I’ve been collecting images and things that seem to approach a new aesthetic of the future, which sounds more portentous than I mean. What I mean is that we’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products.”

You can see this collection at the new aesthetic Tumblr. He said he was now receiving links from people asking ‘Is this the New Aesthetic?’ I can confess I am guilty of this.

I highly recommend you watch this talk by James from last year as he explains the topic in a far more eloquent way than I ever could. You should also check out his portfolio and some of the other things he has made such as Rorschmap (a kaleidoscope view of the world from above), A ship adrift (a bot set adrift based on weather conditions…currentlky somewhere over eastern Europe) and the recently launched Bus Tops, which he called ‘the worlds largest animated GIF sharing infrastructure’ i.e. connected screens on the top of bus shelters to display art. Lunch.

 

Last talk of the day came from Dan Hill. Dan is a Strategic Design Lead at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund. They look into many things but mainly how design can be used to enable change at a city wide level ‘A single building cannot change a city’.

He spoke of the need to change the dark matter that binds the huge organisations/organisms that are cities.  The dark matter being the name Dan gave to the rules and regulations that the city must abide buy even though some of these rules are seemingly unwritten. Sitra looking into new building materials. They wanted to used compressed laminate beams for building structures as they are more environmentally sound than concrete but they are classed as wood, even though they do not burn. The regulations from the 1900s do not allow this. We see so many problems of the 21st century trying to be fixed by 18th century organisations and the rules they created. I can see no parallels with banking here what so ever.

Another example given was around food trucks in Helsinki. They have 10 food trucks for the whole of Helsinki. They all sell the same thing…which did not look pleasant. All restaurants close at 10pm. Drunk revellers seek food much later. They have no choice. The licenses required to open a food truck become available every 10 years. The dark matter of the city prevented innovation around the very important subject of food…or did it? Illegal food sales have began to spring up in parks. People sell food from their windows getting round the restrictions. One brave soul decided to build a crepe truck, Caminoette, and defy the rules. The city regulators were not happy but an 11,000 fan Facebook page and subsequent campaign lead the city, in election year, to reconsider its strict stance. What Sitra are interested in is how more flexibility can be added to the rules to allow for more spikes of innovation. Unpacking the dark matter to make it matter.

These three speakers were the primary reason I wanted to attend this conference. They did not disappoint. I would love to set them loose in a certain industry beginning with B. To see what Timo’s films would unpack, what James would make of the data and what Dan thought about the whole bloody thing. Wonder if I can make that happen? Why on earth would they want to?

There were more speakers and they were all good. Gill Ereaut spoke about the language of corporations and how the way people talk, or name departments lets the culture seep out. Luis Rey talked about the importance of illustration mixed with research, a desire to challenge and a sense of drama to alter the way historians thought about dinosaurs. Tom Armitage spoke of rules and mechanics in games and how the fun of play and ultimately understanding comes from the friction between those collections of rules and mechanics. ‘What toy do you give a 9 year old to show them what the future looks like? Video Games’

A fine first conference of 2012 for me. Thanks to the organisers and the speakers for a brain filling day. I will be the first to admit though that I am not smart enough to have understood all of it. Only so much design you can do.

Posted by Aden Davies on February 1, 2012 | Posted in Conferences | 1 Comment