Category: Ignorance

Burdened by ideas

*SOUND THE NAVEL GAZING ALARM* While writing my last post on PFMs I was struck by how certain ideas and themes recur in my writing and thinking. I am starting to get the feeling I am burdened by these ideas. My brilliance is being hampered by these synapse occupying visions of majesty so much so that my humility has been diminished. Self mockery aside the real reason they are a burden is due to the lack of progress I have made with turning them from ideas stuck in my head to anything resembling reality. I wrote about the problem with ideas stuck in my head last year and one of the ideas I will talk about in this post is one of the ones I refferred to. In that post I said I wanted to protect the idea:

[I] feel a need to evangelise this idea and to ensure it is not crushed by the design by committee types or overlooked as just a feature that can be dropped.

It of course got killed. For this and other reasons I have decided it is time for me to publish these oh so burdensome ideas. Be rid of these foul demons in the vain hope that someone agrees they are good ideas and has some sort of vision of how to make them reality. These ideas are of various ages and I think this list is probably in oldest first order.


Identity Clearly this is a huge topic and I am interested in all facets of identity but the bothersome idea I have harboured for several years is why can’t I logon to my bank website? Yes I can log on to Internet Banking but that is different. For most banks the website is a completely different entity to its online banking portal. If I want to save a quote, view the terms of my insurance policy and potentially view my balances I should not need full strength security and validation. All quite subjective with regards to how secure different types of interaction should be but access to some forms of interactions need to be simpler (it could be argued that it’s the customers choice as to what level of security they desire). Also you have the whole personalisation angle (only show me adverts for relevant products, paint the site black if I am a certain grade of customer etc) to this but I am not so interested in that.

Some banks operate other logons on their websites or external parts of their site such as the logon for HSBC’s Advance offers  or the first direct lab. I suspect interactions here are not well linked to customer profiles or CRM systems because of these logon issues. They also require yet another user ID and password which everyone loves.

What about non-customers visiting a banks site? Why not have a level of registration/identity to allow people to research products, begin applications and then once they take out a product you can upgrade the logon to a level that allows more secure transactions? Don’t make me fully authenticate for everything and don’t leave tracking to cookies and chance for everything else.

Clearly identity is a much bigger thing but I don’t want to get into all that NSTIC / Digital Asset Grid type stuff just yet or even the connection of social network identities or the thought of Klout scores linked to product offerings (shudder). I just want basic federated logons for bank websites and any 3rd party sites the bank operates.


Notification Systems – I have written quite a detailed post on this idea a while back. The bottom line is that in banking today there are many types of events that occur but very few of those events are subject to any form of tailored notification to me as a customer especially if they are not financial transactions. If a specific transaction arrives in my account can I be notified via SMS? If my account balance drops below a certain limit can I get a DM on Twitter? If I miss a call from my RM can I be notified via email? If my mortgage application progresses to the next milestone can I get a message sent to my Internet Fridge? If someone tries to logon from a country or using a device that is not mine can you alert me via every channel available? (why don’t banks have an audit trail that the user can see showing their logon activity ala Gmail?) Today the notifications available to customers are fairly limited. Maybe some basic SMS or some notifications inside a mobile app. The tailoring of them is also limited. No creation of rules or choice of multiple notification channels.

Not only does this limit the amount of feedback loops a bank creates it means the banks miss an opportunity to engage with customers. This thing has happened with your product…you should take some action (and hopefully see this advert for new stuff).

Over and above this though is that these notifications and these events that have occurred are fuel for other services both inside and outside the bank. Imagine if your bank had systems that played together nicely in ways you could manage. Imagine if you had the equivalent of If This Then That for your bank(s). The events and notifications are ripe for bringing your bank activities into your digital world rather than keeping them all locked away in an internet banking portal.


Activity Streams – (This is kind of the one referred to earlier that got killed off) Basically these are a well known form of viewing data and capturing specific forms of interaction. The Facebook newsfeed is probably the most well known form of activity stream. A flowing river of events that have occurred in your network. Why isn’t your bank relationship represented like that? Today it is split by account, then drill down into a list of transactions. That view is of course important but it shows little of the actual interactions. Why not have an activity stream of all actions across all products and services? For example why not show entries such as;

    • You called today and we have done the following things
    • You left a comment on the first direct lab
    • You have won a prize for being our bestest customer
    • We have replied to your complaint about your prize (See our response)
    • We tried to cold call you but you ignored our call
    • You have been chosen for a fantastic new marketing promotion
    • etc

These would be interspersed with the far more frequent and familiar account transactions but it shows you everything that happens across your relationship with your bank. This representation may also change the way you present transactions as more data could be added such as geolocation, images of cheques, call recordings, 3rd party offers etc

Activity Streams are also a blossoming open standard.  You can post events in the activity stream format and then build a stream of those events across any service. If all banking relationship notifications/events mentioned in section two were formatted into activity streams it would allow those events to be brought together more simply in a single place, easing front end integration but also should you so desire allow you to share them outside your bank. This presentation by one of the contributors to the Activity Streams standard, Chris Messina of Google, explains them brilliantly. What if banks extended the standard from it’s current social network definition? A bank contributing to open standards? Crazy talk…

Again this idea is about linking things together. Bringing events from a multitude of systems into one stream. Also enabling the linkage of bank events into wider world of web services.


Open Data & Application Programming Interfaces –  This is my current brain occupier. The one thing I would like banks to embrace the most. I have written about these things many times both inside and outside of the organisation I work for but like Robin S said ‘words are so easy to say’.  I wrote about them here, here and here.  Basically what I want to see is banks surface APIs for core functions. An API for my transactions that I could plug into other services ala Freeagent, An API for payments so a developer could code an app to send money to people ala PayPal X Commerce etc. The very smart James Governor said a while back that he believed API creation and management will be a core skill of the successful enterprises of the future. He is right. We are starting to see a bit of a groundswell around financial services APIs, albeit mainly from new entrants. That will change soon hopefully as the banks wake up to the potential of bridging the gap between the bank network and the web.

Open Data is very similar in that instead of publishing services it is about publishing things that have happened. Banks should have some cracking data sets that could be shared for the benefit of others. Not least the hackers and tinkers and visualisers etc. If the World Bank can do it (and do it well) why can’t some of the other banks of the world do it?


Conclusion of sorts – The main themes here are related to some sort of connective tissue of banking and the web. You can tell I am not a TOGAF certified architect with those kinds of descriptions. I am always disappointed when something can’t be connected to something else for what ever crappy reason ‘It was too expensive to build it like that’ ‘IT Security wouldn’t let us’ ‘It was planned for phase 2’ ‘Open standards are a legal minefield so we write better ones’ ‘What the hell are you on about tubby?! Only activity stream you need is to go swimming’ etc

I understand these things are potentially major infrastructural changes and there is also an unhealthy dose of mindset changes required as well. Both these things notoriously complex, challenging and expensive. I have no mind for business models or numbers related to these kinds of things so could not put a price on such a thing.  I suspect they will cost a fortune to build but will they deliver the savings needed to justify them? Will they allow innovation and creativity to flourish in the way my Utopian visions say they will. Who knows? I believe they will but who will believe me without Return On Investment numbers and other dull figures of justification?

My failings (of which there are many) are that I don’t really know how to make things/make things happen (this could be a whole new navel gazing post). I know how to do whiny blog posts and sarcastic presentations and that ain’t working so well for these kinds of ideas (I am being  flippant but I really don’t know how to start these things). Obviously a problem shared is a problem halved so this is my attempt at that.

Be Gone. Maybe it is time to drown the puppy. Arrogantly accept the fact my ideas are clearly far too ahead of their time/not in anyway realistic. Move on. Seek out new ideas in new areas far away from these and rid myself of this (not very heavy) burden. This is the first step towards that…publish away my problems. I will of course be right back to them the moment anyone shows the merest flicker of interest because I suspect the only real way to rid myself of this burden is to see these things, or better solutions, implemented.

Please stop calling them dumb pipes

Lots of people recently seem to be warning about banks becoming dumb pipes. They say banks are destined to just become the wires. The hearts and minds of customers will be won by the masters of the web. The Googles and Amazons and Apples and Paypals of the web 2.0 world. I agree they probably will but is it really a problem?

Those web 2.0 darlings are not going to make themselves into bank. The majority of them are just interested in the transaction data they don’t want the hassle of running a bank. Basel 3, MiFID and other impenetrable forms of regulation might not be too appealing.

Some may say (not me of course as I work for one) Banks have proved they don’t really get this web thing and especially not this web 2.0 thing with its rounded corners and nice fonts and helpful intuitive interfaces. Why not let the experts have a go at that bit while banks stick to what they are good at.

The banks operate a huge complex global network that moves trillions of dollars per day, usually without much issue. Complex fraud and anti-tax evasion systems operate silently. Audit requirements, data protection standards and a myriad of regulations make this system the powerful beast it is and also a potentially irreplaceable one.

No one in Silicon Valley or any other entrepreneur saturated dreamland is going to want to recreate the whole bank system (I have visions of mad stock sale billionaires from Facebook sitting in their volcano housed lairs thinking ‘we should do that’). That bank system may be a bit long in the tooth and may need some updates here and there but could we give it a chance to catch up by laying down some of these so called dumb pipes and bringing it closer to that other huge complex global network called the Internet? If we give a few more people access to the system in a web friendly way will it be of benefit to all? Will people realise the power of this network and what it allows us to do today?

Liz Lumley wrote a great post about SXSWi and how all the cool companies trying to disrupt banking are massively reliant on that network. ‘What struck me was the juxtaposition of the bravado coupled with the fairly shocking display of ignorance on how international banking and payments happen.’  These pipes are never going to be simple or dumb.

That being said I am interested in the most simple of these dumb pipes. I want an automated data feed from a current account. Every time a new transaction occurs I want a data feed I can subscribe to, just like RSS, to update. That feels very simple and you could say dumb but to make that happen is going to take some damn smart coding and some bravery.

The big problem is authentication. How do I prove I am who I say am? How do I prove that I am allowed to subscribe to that data feed? How does that authentication model satisfy banks security and fraud departments? How does it satisfy the regulators?  What would happen if someone had access to all the data behind that API? What if the Daily Mail had access?

The most simple implementation of the so called dumb pipe was planted in my head by Dave Birch. He posted the following tweet.

Setup a private twitter account. Plug it into your bank account (this dumb pipe of course has OAuth/XAuth like qualities). Follow it to catch your transactions as they happen. Now a bank would never build this. No revenue at all. It only presents risk but a customer has asked for it (albeit a quite forward thinking one who would be a guinea pig to embed payments chip into his body) but a customer need is a customer need and we know they are always right.

A few examples i have seen during my time at HSBC where customers are trying to circumvent this lack of a subscription data feed. Designer Aral Balkan was none too happy that he could only manually access transaction data from two months in the past. So he built a tool (in under 4 days) to scrape the data and save it in a format for him to upload to Freeagent. Another person, a smart gentleman going by the name Jay Fresh, went a step further. He reverse engineered online banking to produce a command line interface. I spoke with him and asked him why, his reply was that he had simply wanted to build his own iPhone app. I can understand his frustrations. Should customers have to work so hard to do this? Should they have to risk their own logon data and potentially break terms and conditions to try and get to the data? Banks spend pots of cash each year trying to figure out what customers want, why not give them the tools to build what they want. A so called dumb pipe would be a very powerful tool in the right hands.

Mr Bank 2.0 (soon to be 2.1 and available in all good book stores), Brett King, also wrote a great post on this topic (and has been talking about it for years) arguing that if the banks do become merely an infrastructure layer then they will miss out on the value built on top of it and that we may need fewer banks/infrastructure providers. I agree they might and there could be less banks but do we need that infrastructure layer to be created to allow new value chains (ugh) and innovations to truly flourish? Where would we be if we still had a fragmented electricity system? Or you could only call someone on the same telephone network as you? We need to create these commodotised infrastructural layers and allow them to weave into the wider world (web?). The innovation S-Curves of many technologies have shown this pattern. Banks may resist as the wireless telcos are doing now, except for the smart ones such as Telefonica, but I believe there is an inevitability and the banks that embrace this will be the ones that exist…but I digress.

So what would a banks dumb pipe look like? What are the technologies required to keep this mother of all honey pots safe and secure so it does not spring a sticky leak. What would be needed to build the simple sounding dumb pipe detailed above? Yes there is inherent risk on freeing customer transaction data but I think the potential benefits outweigh the risks (I may be alone on this). We are starting to see some things in the French banking market that might answer these questions SDK’s have recently been released by Crédit Agricole and this week has also seen the launch of an API by Banque AXA. The future looks French.

I look forward to the arrival of the dumb pipe. It will bring together the banking system and the web. I have high hopes for this dumb pipe. People need to realise that the pipe is not so dumb.