Category: Ideas

Big Bang Data, Big Bank Data


Last week I got chance to visit the Big Bang Data exhibition at the Embankment Galleries in Somerset House. It was great. You should go.


The exhibition explains the size, weight, shape, complexity and reality of data.

Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine film greets you as you enter. A floor to ceiling three projector fired video of a Telefonica data centre.  A look inside the physical home and engine room of the cloud. I did enjoy it because I am a data centre nerd but I must admit that I kept wondering why Telefonica had not implemented hot/cold aisle containment.

Next up was Ryoji ikeda’s Datatron which I loved. Pitch black room and a stark but mesmorising ceiling high visualisation of brilliance. IMG_20151210_145815

I spent a long time watching it on loop then try to take selfie’s (which are encouraged) in front of it with my rubbish Doogee X5 camera.

Then it is into the main exhibition space which features lots of individual pieces of work by very smart people some of which I have had the pleasure to meet.

It was great to see Stephanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi Dear Data project in real life. A ‘year-long, analog data drawing project’ i.e. a weekly set of personal data visualised by the artists and then posted to each other as they lived on opposite sides of the world UK & West Coast of the US. as well as the cards you can see the test drawings and working out.

Dan Williams and Nat Buckley have been investigated the cabling and network infrastructure of London. Producing a crazy wall of photographs, notes, sketches and more to show the infrastructure under our feet and above our heads. The HFT in my backyard piece referenced below is well worth a read.


There is much, much more such as data storage mechanisams from punch cards to DNA, cross sections of undersea cables, maps of those cables and a global map of key data centres (not many banks though), David Mccandless’ Debtris,  James Bridle’s Where the fuck was I book and a great visualisation of redacted material, and to end the show a vending machine that dispensed a packet of crisps when a word related to recession and the credit crisis was tweeted. I waited quite a while to no avail.

I wonder what non-data nerds make of this exhibition I can imagine it opens quite a few eyes to what is done with our data and how it used, carried and manipulated. Go.



It also made me think about something I have long wanted to do with banking data. I would love to see a follow up to this called Big Bank Data that just focused on the Financial Services industry. They are as mysterious and as opaquely branded as the cloud.

It was touched on in this exhibit with references to the credit crisis and HFT etc. I am sure there is more about the size and scale of banks. Imagine a realtime visualisation of payments traversing the globe? Stock exchange traffic? Real HFT visualisations? Data from the countless cyberthreats banks have to deal with every minute of the day? the wax and wane of global real estate owned by banks for their branches, the number of banks today vs 10 years ago, what exactly are these legacy technologies banks run on? If they are public utilities should it not be public? How about delving into the links to governments.

I would love to get some massive bank data sets and hand them over to the artists involved in this exhibition. What stories would they tell? What insights would they glean? That would cause a Big Bang.

Six little fields; Why don’t banks set them free?

I wonder what would happen if every financial service organisation in the world was required to make just six little fields of data available to customers in an automated and open standard automated feed that they could use how and where they see fit. The Six Little Fields, The key day to day transactional data of all the products mentioned above and so many more, are;

  • Time
  • Date
  • Transaction Type (Visa, ATM withdrawal, Direct Debit etc)
  • Transaction Description
  • Transaction Value
  • Balance of the account

There are many more fields underlying this data but these are the key display fields. To allow banking to become a greater part of the web and for this data to become the basis of a thriving ecosystem we need solutions to the following three (at least) problems;

  • An open standard format for transaction data
  • A method of securely linking other financial institutions or 3rd party services to financial institutions so data can be transferred between them automatically
  • A subscribe model for the data that allows new items to be pushed out. Similar to RSS.

I have a handful of ideas and theories on why and how to make this happen and I wanted to share my thinking in the hope that someone out there will agree and have some better ideas along with the will to try to make it happen.


Why do I believe the six little fields are so important?

I assume that most people who own financial services products, be they current accounts, credit cards, loans, savings, insurance etc. do not have them all from the same organisation. Even though I work for a bank, and I should probably whisper this, I do not have all my products with that organisation. This is of course the benefit of a free market, competition and choice, which is a fantastic thing. The big issue from my point of view is what is known in the banking industry as single customer view i.e. the ability to see your full financial picture in one nice shiny interface. This is not a new problem in the industry it is also something I have written about before, but it is one that seems far from being solved or even on any of the banks to do list.

This is one of the ideas I am burdened with and I find myself coming back to it time and again.  I think what I want to see is more web thinking applied to banking. There is a lovely quote from Ben Milne of Dwolla that sums this up nicely.

“Payment networks should have a memory. You absolutely should be able to login to and see every transaction you have ever engaged in with a Visa card. The fact that you can’t do this is ridiculous.”

I love this quote. Those with knowledge of banking will scoff and say this is ridiculous as Visa cards are issued by a multitude of organisations and the identity of the user is not tied back. Fine, but what if…

Not only should you be able to go to financial institutions you have history with but you should also be able to build your own data stores. These six little fields would be the basis of an entire ecosystem featuring so many things that the banks would never build. This tweet from Dave Birch is a great example of those sort of things but if Dave had a feed of his six little fields he could build it himself, solving his own issue, meeting his own need.

Dave wants to follow his bank account

 This data and mechanisms for access could be used just as much, if not more, by the banks themselves. Today most banks have struggled with building on top of or integrating with the digital banking fortresses they have built. It is why the first generation of mobile banking apps plugged into the ATM network rather than Internet Banking because the routes for data out were easier to implement.


How do you get data out of banks today?

The six little fields listed above are the ones shown in your Internet banking interfaces. Underlying those fields there will of course be extra data required such as currency, where money transferred in came from maybe even some location data of an ATM but from a customer’s point of view the six listed above are the ones they most need to see.

Today there are 3 main ways of getting data out of banks.

  1. Manual download of data. This seems to be the prevalent method of getting data out of the banks, certainly in the UK. Download a CSV/OFX/QIF formatted file.
  2. Bespoke feeds. In the US there seems to be a high number of XML feeds in existence to get data out from banks, but they are usually bespoke formats and as such need bespoke decoding. This situation has given rise to 3rd party players such as Yodlee who have put in the hard work to decode all these formats and feeds and then provide a platform to pull them all into. This is laudable but effectively places a commercial company in a very powerful position with regards to data feeds that should be free. Barclays have an automated feed available to their commercial customers in the UK to use with online accountancy service Freeagent.
  3. Scraping the data i.e. giving over your username and password to a 3rd party service and letting their system logon for you and pull the data. Probably against your banks T&Cs and akin to giving your postman your house keys so he can deliver a parcel. Madness. This is known as the password anti-pattern.

The above situation is so fragmented and detrimental to the development of innovative financial services and cannot continue if banking is ever going to get closer to or truly become part of the web.


1.       Open Standards are required

The six little fields must be available in an open standard machine readable format, a format that every financial services organisation, and other interested consumers, could implement.

Open standards would challenge the virtual monopoly Yodlee hold and in my opinion would be better for all. Imagine if shipping containers could only fit onto one organisations fleet of ships, that is effectively the situation we are faced with today.

From an open standard point of view there is actually one in existence today. OFX, Open Financial eXchange. It is a golden oldie, first defined way back in the 90s and was primarily designed for the use of desktop money management packages such as Microsoft Money and Intuit’s Quicken. The standard seems to have gotten a bit stale, I know you should not judge a book by its cover but the OFX website is from a long gone era of web design (and they have not updated their copyright statement since 2007). I emailed the OFX group to see if they were actually still alive and it seems they are;

Yes, OFX is still very much alive.  It dominates the U.S. market; over 5,000 financial institutions in the U.S. use OFX. The last specification was in 2006.  There has not been a need for further revisions although there will probably be revision activity in the future as the need arises.

The problem for me with OFX is that it feels like it is trying to be all things to all men (and women). The scope of the specification covers all manner of banking functions and services, including automated delivery of data but it uses old methods and seems heavily XML based. What I believe is needed is something far simpler and based on more modern data delivery formats and protocols such as OAuth and JSON.


2.       A manual download option is no good

Forcing the user to manually download their data and then upload into another system is a dark ages solution to today’s realtime always on mobile obsessed world. What I would love to see in banking is the introduction of OAuth or one of its variants. This open protocol is designed to allow the sharing of data and identity between web based services. If you have ever connected a 3rd party application to Twitter or Facebook then you have used OAuth. It solves the password anti pattern described above and also removes the need to manually download data.


Twitter OAUTH apps


This is what connected apps look like on Twitter. Imagine if there was a list of banks here instead? Why can’t I connect my data in this exact same way? If I could then Dave Birch could follow his account on Twitter with a few clicks or taps.


3.       Push updates out automatically

Once the connection problem is solved then whenever a new data item i.e. transaction appears that information can be pushed out to wherever the customer has it connected. They are seeing near realtime data in the interfaces of their choosing (obviously how and when the bank posts the transaction data dictates how realtime it is, we know banks love a bit of overnight batch processing).

This source of data becomes a fantastic ingredient for building new things, these events i.e. new transactions, can then have all manner of rules applied to them. It could power IFTTT for banks. Imagine being able to set off other processes automatically as soon as key payments arrive in your account?



If the banking network is truly to become part of the web then the data needs to flow between them as easily and safely as possible. Today that is not really the case in most countries. The digital fortresses banks have built to keep the baddies out are now also keeping their own developers out and are hampering their efforts to build for the brave new digital world. It is in the banks interest to set this data free rather than hoard it for themselves because one day they might understand Big Data. Grasp Open Data first and learn from what people build with that data. I believe Six Little Fields can change the financial services market and how it interacts with and is perceived by the web.

This is part one of my thoughts around six little fields. In the second part I will look at the security concerns of both banks and users, how this might become a reality and whether or not the Germans have actually figured this out already. If you have any questions or comments please do leave them below or pester me on Twitter. I just want to get a conversation started around this topic really, is it a completely ridiculous idea or does it have legs?

Why doesn’t Richard Branson buy Bank Simple?

Random thought of the day. What if Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Bank (old Northern Rock) bought Portland based neo bank (Bank) Simple? I am intrigued to see how well Simple do now they are out of Beta. I think they currently have around 20,000 customers in the US and are starting to push for more. I selfishly wonder if they would get greater traction faster in the UK? Like the US bands that struggled for an audience in the vastness of the US yet came over here and did a few festivals and are now mega stars (how the hell The Killers managed that I will never know) In the US there are several thousand banks, here we only have about five. Simple could clean up over here in the retail market. Of course I suspect they will do very well in the US I just want a proper digitally minded bank in the UK to shake things up a bit.

Why Branson?

Well he has loads of cash and owns a bank that provides almost all retail banking services (no current accounts just yet but that would be perfect to launch with Simple) yet they seem to be focused on a branch based model. What if they really went for it digitally? Take the fight to those big banks in cyberspace and not on the high street. Come on Richard give it a go. Not sure Josh and Shamir will be up for it but $100 million and a few trips to your private island should sort it. Might be a nightmare integration process with those dusty old back end systems but no pain no gain yeah? Just a thought.

The Adjacent Possible In Large Multinational Corporations (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third and final part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible.  I recommend starting with the first and second posts to get more context on the ideas and the adjacent possible


6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available on the outside

As someone whose job it is to look outside the organisation for new and interesting technologies and trends it can be very challenging to try and bring those things back into an organisation that might be a few generational steps behind, like trying to sell Maglev rail tracks to George Stephenson. Sometimes the harsh and frustrating reality is that you need to understand how many steps behind an organisation is, to know where the line of adjacency is.

This in itself can grow to be a major problem. The less an organisation looks outside and studies the evolution of technology over time the greater the technical debt can become and what is adjacent and possible falls further and further behind.

There are also the internal attitudes to innovation in general. Most organisations would say they are innovative and want to be leading fields but inside there might be a more cautious attitude or even admittance that they are a fast follower. Now I hate that term but I realise sometimes it is a good way to be, the first out of the gates is not always the winner but that attitude spreads like a weed and strangles people’s attitude to risk and may prevent them ever trying something new no matter how adjacent to organisational reality it is.

There is also an education and a publishing issue, as outlined in the previous section. Most people do not know what the capabilities of a large organisation are and they also don’t know how an idea goes from their head to getting made.  It seems far from possible for most, me included.


7. Team building exercise

“It was probably one of the greatest research teams ever pulled together on a problem,” Walter Brattain would later say. When he first reviewed the list of who would be working with silicon and germanium in the new solid-state group with Shockley at Murray Hill—roughly every month, the Labs’ staff received typed organizational charts of their department’s personnel—Brattain read it over twice. There isn’t an S.O.B. in the group, he thought to himself, pleased with the prospect of joining in. Then after a minute he had a second thought: Maybe I’m the S.O.B. in the group.  Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Can you increase the chance of discovery, invention and evolution by mixing together different elements? Diverse and cross skilled expert teams should be able to create and unlock greater numbers of ideas faster, although variety is certainly more desirable than speed. It is not as easy to try and force these things but experimenting with different groups of people is certainly worth trying. At the previously mentioned Bell Labs they handpicked teams to work on specific problems and challenges. They had a mix of theorists and experimenters, ideas men and makers working together. Personality types also played a big part as outlined in the quote.

This form of team design maybe considered for short term projects and challenges but not so much on longer term investigations or research. Build an interesting team of people and give them a set of challenges and some freedom to simply ask ‘what if’?


8. Freedom to experiment

“The point of this kind of experimentation was to provide a free environment for “the operation of genius.” His point was that genius would undoubtedly improve the company’s operations just as ordinary engineering could. But genius was not predictable. You had to give it room to assert itself.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Conversations will lead to other opportunities, they will progress ideas but only so far. Jumping from words spoken or on a screen to a tangible prototype, product or service for most can be a very difficult leap to make. The large organisation will have ‘siloed’ and gated most processes to prevent people just going off and making new things and rightly so in most cases. The enterprise is a huge machine full of cogs. It has fixed outputs and they must run like clockwork. Slack must be built into the machine though, spaces to converse, build and play outside or adjacent to the main machinery. The closer the play and experimentation can be to the main machine the better for making these experiments as realistic as possible and also increasing the speed with which they can be put in front of customers. Ideally the experiments themselves should be with customers.

Our internal microblogging platform, uBlog, is a small experimental system that has more than proved the concept of this simple way of increasing adjacency. We were lucky enough to find some equipment we could build and host it on. Most people don’t have that luxury let alone the knowledge of what they would need or even how to ask for it. Making it simpler for people to experiment is an imperative.

Part of that simplification is making tools and ingredients available for people to use and build with. The Application Programming Interface is becoming the default means of building digital things quickly in the real world but most organisations do not have a rich set of these just yet. That should be the aim though, exposing services in a smart enough way internally, with a view to moving it externally, can give those with the ability and desire to make a huge increase in adjacency. Those developers who have worked on a single system their whole life may have always harboured a ‘what if we could do that with system X’? A system they had never touched before. APIs allow them to scratch ‘the what if’ itch.

Most large complex organisations will be good at doing large complex things. The processes and checks built up over time will account for these types of projects. Experiments however need to be quick, easy, dirty and cheap. If you wanted to test a new idea or barely working service with a handful of customers how long would it take? Do the processes designed for the large and complex make it impossible to try out the small and simple? These are key things to fix to give people the freedom to experiment.

There is an interesting quote from a talk by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist and I believe the first person to use the term adjacent possible

“There is a chance that there are general laws. I’ve thought about four of them. […] And the fourth concerns the idea of the adjacent possible. It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible. If they did it too fast, they would destroy their own internal organization, so there may be internal gating mechanisms. This is why I call this an average secular trend, since they explore the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it.” Stuart Kauffman

And this is what it is all about. Making it so people can explore the adjacent possible as quickly as is possible, keep within the rules to stop them from going too far and too fast but all the while the aim is to find out the what if. Learn from the experiment, publish it widely, discuss it deeply, and move onto the next one. See what is possible tomorrow.



These eight theories over three posts are just the starting point of my ideas on this topic. It is clearly a huge subject and there are many angles I have surely not covered. Hopefully people will be willing to share and publish their own ideas and feedback to help build upon the work I have done.

For me the key to the adjacent possible is networks. Allowing easy connections to be made between people, problems, information, answers, ideas etc., is a must. Simplifying the steps required for a person to ask a question, find an answer/person, propose solutions, make a thing and most importantly do this in public will bring a greater level of adjacent possibility to an organisation.

There are many variables to improving the chances of great ideas getting out of people’s heads and getting closer to reality. There are many more than I have listed above. The two things to solve that will bring the greatest benefit in the shortest time are make it easier for conversations and connections to be made and build things that will give people freedom to experiment.

You can’t necessarily force all these elements together and expect magic. You just need to create a fertile environment and nurture people and see what they create. Feed the curious mind, enable the skilled maker and let the theorists test out those long held theories. These are my ideas on how to encourage the adjacent possible.


I highly recommend the following books which I have quoted throughout

Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen B. Johnson

The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the great age of American innovation by Jon Gertner


And here are a few related articles on the subject.

The adjacent possible in large mutlinational corporations (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part in a series of posts on the adjacent possible. I recommend starting with part one to get more context on my thinking about the adjacent possible as well as the first two ideas on this subject.


3. The culture is the air people, and therefore ideas, breathe

The rules for the use of collaboration tools mentioned above will be endemic to certain types of corporate culture. The surrounding atmosphere that people live and breathe in their office will have the largest impact on any attempts to encourage people to investigate and test the adjacent possible. Some people will wait for permission to be given or even ordered but for real experimentation to flourish it must become just an accepted part of the working day. It does not have to be something fully formed like Google’s mythical 20% time but just an acceptance that people can feed their curiosity and have the freedom to experiment at the boundaries.

Initiatives like 20% time i.e. a day a week to work on whatever you want as long as it benefits the company and is something new or innovative, is of course worthwhile but single initiatives however varied can become a burden over time as they grow into complex processes that are open to a few capable and perseverant folk. Like most things in large complex organisations they also grow large and complex. It is important to try these kinds of processes but they cannot be the sole measure of whether a company is innovative. They do of course contribute to the overall culture of the organisation showing that innovation will be rewarded.

The question I ask is how is easy would it be for two people from different departments to decide to spend a day or two working on something non-standard and then share or publish what they had done to the rest of the organisation. Rigid objectives, budget lines, timesheets all these important resource recording and directing mechanisms are required for the machine to run but they can certainly get in the way of anything outside the norm making the previous scenario feel almost impossible. ‘Sorry mate can’t help you unless you have a budget line I can record my time against’ ‘We can’t show this anyone as <insert stereotypical perceived innovation blocking department here> will kill us’ and conversations of this type make it feel like making anything new and different is almost impossible. People are often so overloaded with work because the resource allocation for an individual developer will probably be 110-120%. Having an environment and atmosphere that provides time and freedom for these ad hoc collaborations and provides a vehicle to share them with the organisation will be as conducive to the overall culture as any best idea competition.


4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation

And what of the physical spaces we work in? Are they designed for collaboration as well? There are many studies and design articles on the changing workplace and building to ensure peoples paths cross often ensuring potential for cross pollination of ideas. I am currently reading a brilliant book about Bell Labs, the legendary research facilities of AT&T that created all manner of things including the solid state resistor that changed the face of electronics. Their labs were built to ensure people would bump into one another.

“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices—but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible. Then again, that was the point.” Jon Gertner – The Idea Factory

Other companies have designed offices for these kinds of interactions and collaborations. Steve Jobs made sure Pixar had a huge atrium that every department had to pass through. Zappos also went with a similar approach when they redesigned an existing office building, closing off several previous routes into the office to force people through central areas. In addition they also built in flexible office walls and non-fixed desks, complete with ceiling level cabling so it is easier to unplug, enabling individuals and teams to move and morph into new spaces and configurations. Do offices in great big vertical towers only go to highlight rigid vertical structures and hierarchies that are not designed to mix? Hot desking as a concept is ok but do teams still sit with each other as a matter of course and is moving around the organisation really encouraged?

Another element of office design and usage that I think certainly helps is using the walls. The walls in most offices are either covered in wretched wallpaper, beige paint or the occasional wall decal or worse still motivational posters. These walls could and should be used to display work, to show progress, to highlight problems so that people who are passing can take a look. Well implemented agile development processes will get users to create physical representations of tasks and jobs using pen and paper and some means of fixing them to the wall. Publishing activity, showing progress, making the ‘working out’ visible to those physically near or just passing is a great form of advertising what a team actually does.

In an old post about cultivating hunches I suggested putting whiteboards on the back of toilet doors. It is about thinking more of how we use the spaces we occupy and work in over and above just somewhere to sit in front of a screen and a keyboard.


5. Publish by default – no more secrets

No more secrets, make things public by default, creating a culture of sharing can only increase adjacency; the importance of this sharing cannot be underestimated. Build basic description and communications into plans and working practices of the projects being undertaken around the world. Not just the dry status reports but well written descriptions of the trials and tribulations of a project/product as it ebbs and flows through its natural lifecycle. The publishing and therefore sharing of this information is the key to having a healthy flow of knowledge and potential adjacencies to be investigated by others.

I have stated before that I am a big fan of the UK’s Government Digital Service Team and they have built into their service delivery manual the concept of blogging progress frequently and freely. This recent example talking about the work involved to improve search is an excellent example of sharing, writing and publishing.  Project teams sharing their progress, failures, processes, changes and successes in a pace accessible by all (maybe even outside the organisation) would be a very valuable source of information.

The default setting of most teams in organisations seems to be private. Our team often get asked if we can build other teams their own microblog and we usually say no. Use the same one everyone else does. They invariably decline. There needs to be a move away from this unwillingness to work in public. Without the act of publishing the organisation does not maximise the value of what it already, knows and tries and achieve.


This is the end of part two. The final part is available here.

The adjacent possible in large multinational corporations (Part 1 of 3)

Soup. Primordial soup. The chemical and biological mixture and its environmental surroundings that gave us the planet we know and love/destroy today. The monomers turned into polymers which turned into life through a series of reactions and transformations made possible by the surrounding atmosphere and components. Life as we know it became possible because of what was around to interact and react with. The initial molecules that are formed then have a new set of reactions and collisions available to them and on it goes. This is known as ‘the adjacent possible’.

It was brought to my attention by the author Stephen B. Johnson in his book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ and it has stuck with me. I have been wondering for quite some time about the adjacent possible inside a large multinational corporation.


This post is my attempt to unpack and write down some thoughts on this subject. I think there are a few key areas for consideration in improving the organisational environment for the adjacent possible. I have considered the following eight ideas.

  1. Make conversations and connections easier – Can enterprise collaboration tools solve geographic location problems and make it easier to share ideas and solutions.
  2. The rules are only as good as the tools – don’t strangle attempts to collaborate by restricting people so much that they are afraid to get involved.
  3. The culture is the air people breathe – The air an organisation breathes contributes greatly to its health. If it is oppressive then experimentation will not flourish
  4. Spaces designed for collision and cultivation – The adjacent possible must be cultivated in the real world not just on screen, how working environment design affects this.
  5. Publish by default – No more secrets. Hiding away the success, progress, and failures of every team in an organisation restricts knowledge and collaboration opportunities.
  6. The adjacent possible on the inside versus what is available outside – it is so easy to look outside and see lots of shiny new technologies and wish they were available but what is available today inside and are they adjacent to the outside?
  7. Team building exercise – A small team of A grade people should beat a bigger team of B grade people. Experiment with the mixture of teams on certain types of projects and challenges.
  8. Freedom to experiment – How easy is it to take an idea beyond a few words or a scribbled diagram? The easier it is to move ideas forward the more time people will be willing to invest.

These eight ideas will be covered in three post which will be published over the next seven days.


What is the adjacent possible and why is it so important?

In the context used in Stephen B. Johnson’s book the adjacent possible refers to the ideas and inventions that are possible at a set period in time. You can’t go from the steam engines to electric trains in a single leap. A series of events, skills, tools and materials need to have occurred/been invented/existed for progress and innovation to occur. Examples given in the book include the invention of the newborn child incubator being created by an obstetrician who had seen hatchlings at the Paris Zoo warmed under a lamp. Conversely, the complexity involved in modern day incubators meant that donating them to 3rd world countries was a waste of time as they would invariably break and are not easily repairable leading to the design of incubators made of abundant resources i.e. car parts, made so simply that if you can change a headlight you can fix them.

The inspiration of an idea, the ability through skills and materials available to experiment and make are key to innovative breakthroughs. Johnson says;

“Good ideas […] are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

The organisation must design for stumbling, make it easier for people to come across these ideas and the people that care about them, and then make it simpler to jigger them into something more tangible and defined.

Johnson gives the example of coral reefs displaying such rich diversity in a very small area in terms of the vast empty oceans. What set of ecosystem components causes this to happen and can they be designed or at the very least enhanced or experimented with?

In a large multinational organisation it becomes ever more difficult for the right minds to know one another exist let alone converse or meet in person. In organisations over a certain size the chances that someone somewhere in the world is coming up with similar ideas to someone else are high. How do you connect those ideas? How do you connect those experiments?  The technical problems, progressions or failures in one team, in one building, in one country, in one region could be as much a secret to someone six desks away let alone six time zones.

‘The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible’

The following sections are my thoughts on how to enhance large organisations to allow maximum adjacent possibilities.


1. Making conversations and connections easier – enterprise collaboration tools

The problems associated with this distance between people and knowledge is the challenge being addressed by the enterprise 2.0/social business/collaboration technology vendors today and it is a worthy challenge. The technical element of this problem is fairly well understood. Let me search for colleagues in my organisation who have ’hot new technology’ in their job title, or have blogged about a topic you are interested in etc. etc. this is the techno utopian dream to enabling ’collaboration’ and I can’t wait for it to arrive but the technology is only part of the battle. I worry that these enterprise class collaboration platforms are too unwieldy, trying to do too much. Would a smaller suite of simpler tools be more effective? Can the two worlds coexist with user identity to bring them together?

Our team, in conjunction with others, run a small microblog. It is a proof of concept system designed just to do one thing well. It does not try to do everything just a simple yet powerful stream of 500 character text messages. It is a platform for public conversation at its heart and that is where the greatest value is derived. It simply allows asynchronous adjacency across time zones.

The users of the system have come up with a small call for help in the form of the #uBlogHelpMe hashtag. Replies will come in from all over the globe with ideas, suggestions and solutions and it is always a great thing to see. Studies have shown that microblogging, externally in the form of Twitter, has reduced the six degrees of separation to much nearer four.  Microblogging is not for everyone, it is not the solution to all of an enterprises collaboration problems but it is a damn good start.  It is a single place for public discourse and connection and reduces the distance between people and ideas and so few large organisations have that capability. The tools outside are often much more fully formed and I personally have made connections with other staff members from my organisation that I would never met via any other means.

I assume most large organisations have some sort of idea suggestion scheme, whether they involve writing an idea on a piece of paper and posting it in a fake letter box or some nice collaborative idea gathering/voting platform. We use IdeaJam as a platform for gathering, voting and commenting on and linking ideas. One recent example showed a colleague in Mexico reaching out to someone in China who had a similar idea and to explore working together. The more out in the public the ideas the better for all, the ability to have conversations around these ideas even better still.

I wonder how many companies also use the platforms to capture problems and questions. There are hundreds of ideas out there but we sometimes ignore the actual capturing of problems. If you could fix one thing is a powerful question…the normal worry is that you would be inundated with questions about pay rises. The fact is most people just want a place to ask a question, to get help with a problem. Therein lays a great source of innovation potential, both the problems requested but also the network of people that build up around those problems and communities.


2. The tools are only as good as the rules

“When people believe in boundaries, they become part of them.”
Don Cherry

The tools are only as good as the users though. They are also only as useful as the rules/culture allow. For some managers collaboration tools like this are seen as play and not work yet if someone sat in front of an email client all day they would be seen as busy.

This set of unwritten rules damages the collaboration culture execs say they want. Posting on chat forums/blogs etc. just like speaking up in public, is challenging for most due to fears about their ideas being mocked, have they said the right thing, are they wasting people’s time etc. This culture makes it difficult. There are some good studies on why people lurk rather than post in communities such as this one by Ridings, Gefen and Arinze

Of course there must be some rules, to avoid the rise of undesirable behaviours and to keep people within the law but they must not prevent the use of the tool entirely through fear. Those that do not understand the tools are usually the ones most afraid of them and it has been the same for many technological advances designed to improve communication within large companies.  Telephones, email, instant messaging and internet access have all been greeted with howls of derision by certain parties claiming all work will cease. Some will misuse the tools they have in any working environment. Some will use rope to help them scale the heights; another may use it to hang themselves. The outside world created these technologies for a multitude of reason and while there may be negatives they are usually far outweighed by the positives of connecting people more easily.


This is the end of part one. Part two is here, the final part is here.

Fun blockers

*OVERWROUGHT METAPHOR AHEAD* When I was younger I used to love skateboarding. I was rubbish at it but am still interested in it (and I am excellent at EA Skate and Tony Hawks on the Xbox). The sport has clearly grown in this country and in my home city of Sheffield there are even a few skate parks now. A few special spaces where these activities are permitted and encouraged. I have also started to see the rise of anti-skating measures such as grind blockers.

Fun Blockers

Grind blockers are brackets that installed on surfaces to prevent skaters grinding or sliding their board on them. From the picture above they may not look like much but to other people they are cold heartless prevention measures.  The owners of the property will say they are to prevent damage or to protect skaters from hurting themselves and not that they prevent the skaters trying to sue the owner of the property when they break their ankles or them preventing teenagers hanging around.

Millhouses Grind

I can see both sides to these arguments but as a skater at heart I think they are primarily a device for stopping fun, creativity and interactivity. People that see a piece of civic infrastructure in a completely different way and that can facilitate the creation or usage of those things the builder / owner never dreamed of.  There are many things inside major organisations that have been ruined with virtual versions of these grind/fun stoppers. Whether they be arcane rules that say you shall not use that piece of code for any other than its intended use, you can’t embed that thing from outside into this page inside, you can’t plug anything non-standard into this network or you can’t use that data elsewhere. Yes there are good reasons for these things but they must prevent a lot of fun, creativity and interactivity. If you want a more innovative culture maybe it is time to break off some of the fun blockers.

What to do with the war cards?

I have been approached by the good people in the HSBC UK archives to help with a little project. The archives contain, amongst many other fascinating things, four boxes of war cards. Rachael Porter from the UK Archives team explains;

‘”Next year marks 100 years since the start of the First World War. Here at HSBC Archives we are keen to mark this anniversary and, in doing so, also showcase some of our records relating to this period. We have a set of index cards, naming Midland Bank staff members who went off to serve in the armed forces during the conflict. Each card records detailed information about the employee, and in some cases unique information about his service record, which cannot be found anywhere else. We’d love for members of these men’s families, and military history enthusiasts, to be able to access these records; and a project centered around digitizing them and making them available, whilst also tying in with the anniversary, would be a real achievement for us.”

The question is how to do that? And where to do that? To ensure people get the most value out of this amazing and important data as possible. I am after a bit of help.

The how/where? (a few quickly thrown together ideas)

The boxes contain approximately 5,000 index cards. They have typed field names and hand written details with things such as staff name, branch, rank, regiment etc. The back of the card includes notes on their time in the forces.

War cards 2a

I think it would be great to scan the cards front and back and store them on a platform capable of  allowing other people to transcribe and add to the data. The actual scanning is tricky/time intensive (and there may be no way round that) due to both the volume and the fact these are 100 years old and sticking them in a duplex scanner maybe a little risky. If anyone has experience of scanning index cards with these kinds of machines I would love to know more. Have you been involved in any projects that had to scan in a large set of paper based data?

A platform like the one built (in a week) for the Guardian MP’s Expenses investigation sprang to mind. This allowed masses of PDF scans to be uploaded and then provide some simple yet powerful tools for annotating and categorising the data. Unfortunately the site is no longer live but there are some good reads on how and why they built it.

Another good example of the genre is Old Weather, which published thousands of old nautical weather logs and asks people to transcribe them. Whether it is feasible for the project to build something to this level is debatable, small budget and short timescales as usual, but it would be great to try because it would become reusable for future data sets rather than just be a one off set of scanning and tagging of data.

I am looking for any platforms that support this kind of data load and amendment. At a basic level we could use Flickr to upload the images then use tagging, sets (or whatever they are called now), comments etc to try and build a usable and searchable set of data. Evernote was another tool that sprang to mind, to capture and attempt to transcribe the data but I am not sure if it really suited to this kind of task, especially if you wanted to build something else on top of it.


I am also looking for suggestions of other tools that would assist with this. Whether it be a platform like Flickr or a set of open source tools somewhere. Anything we can have a play with.

Also are there any organisations/people that specialise in this, other archives or museums for example. Any specialist military history sites? Once the data is scanned and annotated where should it live? Submitting the data set to the National Archives was a good suggestion by my colleague as it seems they have a nice looking API.

This was a very quick scrawl of ideas. The key for me is tools to help with the capture, storage and annotation of the data. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Feel free to get in touch via the comments below or Twitter if you prefer.

Update 14:30 29/05/13

I have had some lovely ideas shared via Twitter and on our internal blog at work. Mechanical Turk has had many mentions and I was foolish to not include it. Simon shared the brilliant looking open hardware book scanner. Please keep them coming you lovely people.

Update 10:30 31/05/13

I have had some pointers to Guardian staff that worked on the MP’s expenses system and an offer to help code such a system from a brilliant man who used to work for the Guardian. We may have a solution from our Central Scanning department in Coventry but we cannot test it until the week of June the 10th due to system access requirements, fingers crossed. Rachael has been in touch with the Imperial War Museum. Things are looking good.

Update 15:40 26/06/13

It has been slow progress over the last few weeks then some interesting things happened within a couple of days. First we have the go ahead and the means to scan the cards. This will be happening next Wednesday in Coventry, where we will be running the cards through these scanning beasts. We also had a great meeting with Luke Smith (see his great comment below for links to some interesting resources) from the Imperial War Museum who is working on the fantastic looking Lives of the First World War We have also received some very good advice/pointers/introdcutions to interesting people from Kim Plowright. It is getting a bit exciting.

Web Curios The Spreadsheet Edition

I assume that everyone reads Matt Muir’s excellent weekly(ish) round up of interesting things from the web that might be slightly related to digital media industries? If not you should go here and subscribe immediately. It is a brilliantly written thing and shows a curious, intelligent humourous and slightly warped mind in all its glory. I am a massive fan of smart people collating interesting things and providing them to me on a plate as I am lazy and it saves me doing anything like work. Web Curios is also a long read and contains a lot of links and this got me wondering how long would it take for a person to consume a whole episode of Web Curios? Every link? Every video? Every thing?

I produce a few similar things to Web Curios both on this blog and at work but nothing quite on the scale or humour or quality of Matt’s rambling delights. At work our team produce a monthly newsletter made up of news, blogs and interesting links that relate to our work/interests. We often ask ourselves how much time do these things take to consume (or delete without reading)? What if you clicked on every link and read every post. If only we had a tool that you could feed a bunch of links and it would give you the answer as if we could come up with some perfect amount of time it should take. Well to the best of my knowledge no such tool exists (it better bloody not do after the amount of work I did on this i.e. about 2 hours).

As a ‘little’ experiment I decided I would have a go at working out how long it would take to consume an entire edition of Web Curios. Instead of actually reading/viewing/playing with it all I made a spreadsheet instead. I chose an edition from a four day working week so in theory it should have been a bit shorter but as I began the task it became clear shortness is relative.  You can find the edition of Web Curios I chose at and you should of course read it from beginning to end (and then let me know how long it took you).

What did I actually do?

The first job (after reading it and enjoying it) was to capture all the links in it. This involved me opening the links, copying them into a Google Docs spreadsheet, giving them a basic categorisation (words, pictures, video, tool etc) and then doing some horribly basic and assumption riddled maths on consumption time. It was a grind of a task but strangely rewarding.

The answer I came up with was as follows…to consume the 10th of May 2013 edition of Web Curious would take 7 hours, 8 minutes and 33 seconds, which is a good chunk of a working day and would probably be better than work. Web Curios itself has over 4,000 words and contains 102 links. The links lead too 57,016 words, 1 hour, 48 minutes and 35 seconds of video, 525 pictures, 9 tools/services, 4 games and a 1 hour and 41 seconds long mix tape to listen too while you do all that reading (you would actually have to listen to it five times though).

This is based on assumptions such as average reading time of 215 words per minute, 3 seconds per picture, a minimum noodling time (technical term) with the tools/sites. I only took into account the first page visited for most links unless it was a multi page article. Like I said basic and assumption riddled. My very rough calculations do not take into account any rabbit hole falling down you may do, any addictive game playing time or time taken to tweet Matt Muir about NSFW links that you were not warned about and opened at work. Thankfully this weeks edition was relatively clean. My normal interactions with Web Curios is to read it all and open some links for reading once I have finished, I assume most people do the same.

I am pretty sure nobody clicks every link (apart from me this week) and consumes every item but I just wanted to put some almost meaningless figure on if they did. I have no conclusion or no great insight into what this means. I would of course like a tool that automates this for my own work, giving Friday Reading posts an average reading time for example would be a nice feature. It was just an idea that had been in my head a while and I wanted it out and there is nothing like the reward of completing an almost pointless task.

You can see that very exciting spreadsheet embedded below or over here if you prefer links/can’t see the embed/want the full interface.

Banking conferences are broken…

…and what I would like to do about it.  This is a self-centered post based on my frustration at some banking conferences, it is mainly down the cost of entry but there are a few other issues. This is my attempt to articulate those frustrations and what I would want to see from a banking event effectively designed for me (by me?). Like I said, self centered. I might be making a rather large assumption that anyone other than me would be interested in attending such a thing but a man can dream (albeit a dull one about banking conferences)

That being said, surely it must be possible to put on a decent event about banking that does not cost the earth, is not all bankers in the audience and on stage, covers a broad range of topics about the existing systems, processes, people and the new things trying to improve or destroy them.


Expensive by design?

The event that brought this to a head was the recently announced Wired Money conference. It is due to be held this July in Canary Wharf at the financial technology incubator on Level 39 of 1 Canada Square. This relatively new hub of fintech startups is a good signal of the growth and momentum in London in this space. The event has a great line up of speakers (Kevin Slavin being a big draw) with the majority being based in the UK and a few being flown in from the US and Europe. My main problem is the cost. £995 for a one day conference. Now of course if anyone involved wants to offer me a freebie I am hypocritical enough to accept it gleefully.

Another great conference that the cost of irks me is Finovate. This year a ticket was £1100 for two days made up of 7 minute demos by fintech startup companies. These companies also have to pay to present. I am glad Finovate came to London a couple of years ago, their main conferences are in San Francisco and New York, and they have helped raised the profile  of the UK and European Fintech scene. That being said it is still prohibitively expensive for me.

Next week we have another example – Customer Experience in Financial Services. A strong lineup of senior banking folk talking about exciting things like ‘deepening customer relationships through face-to-face interaction’ and ‘Engaging the millennial generation’ and while I am sure it will be a fine conference I doubt there will be any customers there to talk too face to face or any millennials who can afford to attend.  So will it just be assumptions about what they like and want? Just £1000 for a ticket or £1600 if you want to attend day two as well, Social Media in Financial Services. I am sure it will be a good conference I am just venting now.

I know conferences have to make money or there is no point hosting them but it feels like these banking conferences are being priced at such a level the price tag means prestige or only senior executives can afford to attend. While I fully understand these influential folk are key to making the changes needed to banking or having the budget to invest in some of these startup companies it feels like there is an air of exclusivity which does nothing to change the attitude to banking for the better. Some of the new finance events feel more like ‘Let’s get all the cool kids of new finance to parade their wares and ideas in front of the kingmakers’.

There are of course good examples in banking. Last years Next Bank Europe event last year in Rome had a great lineup with speakers coming from all over the world and the ticket was 300 euros. It is bordering on the expensive but a damn sight more affordable than those already mentioned, even with a flight and hotel in Rome. BarCampBank London now in its sixth year was held the day before Finovate and the price was the princely sum of £10.  Now there were sponsors and a few favours pulled but profit was not the driving factor. (UPDATE: Dave Birch, the organiser of BarCampBank London messaged me to say the ticket money was also donated to charity ‘We sent £685.34 to Jubilee Action for their work with street children in Kenya and with former child soldiers in Uganda‘). Last year’s TEDxLeeds had a new finance focus and for a shortish evening event managed to pull together a good selection of speakers for not much money.

The two one day conferences I have been able to afford to attend this year, The Design of Understanding and The Story have been excellent and the combined cost of tickets for both was just over £200. The people behind these conferences, Max Gadney and Matt Locke respectively, are very talented, smart and respected in their fields and they clearly have great taste in choosing interesting topics around their chosen themes of information design and narrative. They are choosing talks they want to hear talk over and above making money.


Pass the tissues

‘Oh boohoo poor little mid management banker can’t afford to go to conferences, my heart bleeds’ Yes, yes I can imagine there is very little sympathy for me but all I want is an event that tries to bridge the worlds of new and old but also opens the door to others that may be interested. At a price I can afford to go to as well. We have a wealth of digital talent in the UK and I feel like the majority are not engaged in any meaningful way with ‘banking and financial services’ over and above their day to day use, complaining about the deficiencies of their Internet banking offerings or doing great redesigns hoping the banks will notice. I want to get hackers, designers, writers, makers whatever in to a room to listen, learn, contribute and get excited about the future of finance.

As I said before we have some great things happening in London. Great companies like TransferWise and OpenGamma are leading the way. The London based Anthemis Group have their laser like eyes focused on investing in the best of the best with a view to redesigning and replacing the banking systems so they are fit for tomorrow not struggling to be fit for today. Sean Park of Anthemis has a great line about this momentum shift.

“We are starting to see a Cambrian explosion of new ventures, new companies, entrepreneurs focusing on this space. The fruit maybe high on the tree but it is enormous and juicy”

He is right, we are seeing a change and it is exciting to bank geeks like me. How do we get people outside the industry to learn more about this? Get more people eyeing up that fruit?

For me John Kay’s 2009 book titled ‘The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry’ sums it up perfectly, although I would of course like to see people from the industry in the audience.


Aircraft engines & ‘opaqueness’

The other thing I would want from my dream event is not just about the new and the innovative. I want to know more about the existing system. There was a great quote recently from Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan when he was challenged by Paul Singer that their accounting was unfathomable.

“Businesses can be opaque. They are complex. You don’t know how aircraft engines work either.”

When I say great quote I mean it was a great insight into the attitude of some in banking. You might not know how aircraft engines work but they are built by multiple providers and that is repeatable. We can build new ones that improve on the old ones. That is not so easy when applied to the bank network.

There are many vast and complex systems that make up the banking world and they are systems we use every single day and impact our lives in ways we may never think about but it is fascinating. How is a cheque actually cleared? How on earth does an ATM work? How is a debit card made (I want a video like this please)? What the hell is a complex derivative? There are so many elements of the banking system that are understood by so few (including some people that work for banks i.e. me).

Contrast the comment by Mr Dimon with this one by Ben Milne of Dwolla.

“Payment networks should have a memory. You absolutely should be able to login to and see every transaction you have ever engaged in with a Visa card. The fact that you can’t do this is ridiculous.”

For those with  a modicum of banking / card issuing knowledge might laugh at the naivety of this statement i.e. the Visa cards are issued by a number of other companies and as such Visa should have no way of tieing all this data together. This only shows how brilliant web thinking is when applied to the historic models that make no sense to new generations, of course you should be able to search every transaction you have ever made. Just the ability to search a years worth of transactions would be a massive leap forward for most financial institutions.


Dream event

So…after all that rambling what I would love to have is an annual event aimed at those that just have an interest in banking and finance and where it is today and where it is going. Hosted away from the steel and glass of the Wharf and somewhere a bit friendlier like Conway Hall, the venue for The Story and another excellent conference, This Is Playful. With a price that makes it accessible to more than those with tailored suits and handmade shoes but for anyone who already works in this area or just people who are interested in learning more. It should be neither focused on banker bashing or bankers only but a happy medium that can hopefully foster soemthing approaching coherent debate.

I would like to hear Joris Luyendijk’s stories about all the real bankers he interviewed and get past media stereotypes (or confirm them), or how about some people who try to circumvent the banking processes for their own gains (no, not bankers), James Bridle talking about the design and architecture of data centres alongside someone who actually designs them, Pelle Braendgaard on OpenTransact and can open source code really replace the banking network etc. etc.

My initial Twitter rant caught the eyes of a few people who were willing to offer advice and help so we will see what they say after reading this rambling word spew. My partner is about to give birth to our second child so I will have no time until May to think about this but in my humble opinion the best time to hold it would be the Thursday after Finovate as there are plenty of new finance types around which could give a head start for speakers and attendees. Finovate London has traditionally been in mid-February so it also gives a bit of time to get things organised if there is enough interest. Feel free to leave any thoughts below especially if you think this is a good idea and what you would want to see from such a conference if you do.