Thursday, 29 October 2015

Poor Competition In Personal and #SME Banking (and What the CMA Plans To Do About It)

The Competition and Markets Authority has been investigating the state of competition for personal and small business bank customers, and the results are pretty shocking. The full report is here, the summary of findings here and the possible remedies are here.

We have until 20 November to comment on the findings and remedies (email The CMA's provisional decision on remedies is due in February 2016 and the final report in April 2016.

Most glaring is the fact that 99.9% of all UK businesses are small - over 5 million of them - and the vast majority of them are sole traders. Yet small businesses do not benefit from most of the customer protection and other measures aimed at improving services and increasing competition for personal customers.

You would also think banks would do more to look after small businesses, given they are responsible for at least 5 million self-employed roles, and most new jobs come from that sector. But only 60% of SMEs survive beyond three years and only 40% make it past the five year mark. It's true that no job is for life, anymore, but poor financial services must surely be a factor in such high business death rates.

More has to be done to help this sector thrive. Have your say! 

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Labour's Idealistic March Into Oblivion

So, another political 'party' season slips by and the casual observer would think the Tories' policies must be more or less the right. There are no practical alternatives for anyone interested in the decisions actually required to drag the UK back from the abyss into which it's been staring for decades. Fortunately, that seems to be the majority of voters - the electorate finally understands that the UK reached the limit of taxing and spending sometime in the noughties and it's the Government's job to figure out how to do less of both.

Sadly, the Labour Party is giving up on such tough decisions, preferring the cosy bubble of idealism in which the air is a mixture of moral panic and dogma, and the 'answer' must fit on a placard. 

For instance, this week's 'news' that a single grammar school in Kent is expanding is said to threaten the quality of teaching at every school in the country, and Labour's 'solution' is that all children must go to state school. 

Trident costs too much? Unilateral disarmament. 

Steel plants to close through lack of demand for British steel? Nationalise them.

A living wage? Tax credits.

Unhelpful, impracticable, unrealistic, vacuous, dogmatic twaddle.

And since Liberal Democrat voters decided they, too, are sick of their party having to make the hard decisions, we are left with the Tories having to be their own conscience...  and do all the work.  

Let's hope they get it right - and remember, every country has the government it deserves.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Alan Turing Institute: Human-centric?

A slightly dispiriting day at The Alan Turing Institute 'Financial Summit', yesterday, I'm afraid to say. 

The ATI itself represents a grand vision and stunning organisational achievement - to act as a forum for focusing Britain's data scientists on the great problems of the world. Naturally, this leaves it open to attempts at 'capture' by all the usual vested interests, and its broad remit means that it must reflect the usual struggle between individuals and organisations and between 'facilitators', who exist to solve their customers problems, and 'institutions', who exist to solve their own problems at their customers' expense

And of course, it's the institutions that have most of the money - not to mention the data problems - so I can see, too, why the ATI advertises its purpose to institutions as "the convener of a multidisciplinary approach to the development of 'big data' and algorithms". It's true also, that there are global and social issues that transcend the individual and are valid targets for data scientists in combination with other specialists. 

But it was concerning that an apparently neutral event should seem predicated on a supplier-led vision of what is right for humans, rather than actually engineering from the human outward - to enable a world in which you to control what you buy and from whom by reference to the data you generate rather than by approximating you to a model or profile. Similarly, it was troubling to see a heavy emphasis in the research suggestions on how to enable big businesses to better employ the data science community in improving their ability to crunch data on customers for commercial exploitation.  

To be fair, there were warning signs posted for the assembled throng of banks, insurers and investment managers - in the FCA's presentation on its dedication to competition through its Innovation Hub; a presentation on the nature and value of privacy itself; and salutary lessons from a pioneer of loyalty programmes on the 'bear traps' of customer rejection on privacy grounds and consumers' desire for increasing control over the commercial use of our data. The director's slides also featured the work of Danezis and others on privacy-friendly smart metering and a reference to the need to be human-centric.  

But inverting the institutional narrative to a truly human-centric one would transform the supplier's data challenge into one of organising its product data to be found by consumers' machines that are searching open databases for solutions based on actual behaviour - open data spiders, as it were  - rather than sifting through ever larger datasets in search of the 'more predictive' customer profile to determine how it wastes spends its marketing budget.

Personally, I don't find much inspiration in the goal of enabling banks, insurers and other financial institutions to unite the data in their legacy systems to improve the 'predictive' nature of the various models they deploy, whether for wholesale or retail exploitation, and I'm sure delegates faced with such missions are mulling career changes. Indeed, one delegate lightened the mood with a reference to 'Conway's Law' (that interoperability failures in software within a business simply reflects the disjointed structure of the organisation itself). But it was clear that financial institutions would rather leave this as an IT problem than re-align their various silos and business processes to reflect their customers' end-to-end activities. There is also a continuing failure to recognise that most financial services are but a small step in the supply chain, after all. I mean, consider the financial services implications of using distributed ledgers to power the entertainment industry, for example... 

When queried after the event as to whose role it was to provide the 'voice of the customer', the response was that the ATI does not see itself as representing consumers' or citizens' interests in particular. That much is clear. But if it is to be just a neutral 'convenor' then nor should the ATI allow itself to be positioned as representing the suppliers in their use and development of 'big data' tools - certainly not with £42m of taxpayer funding. 

At any rate, in my view, the interests of human beings cannot simply be left to a few of the disciplines that the ATI aims to convene along side the data scientists - such as regulators, lawyers, compliance folk or identity providers. The ATI itself must be human-centric if we are to keep humans at the heart of technology.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Building Societies Abandon The Lending Code

A new version of the Lending Code has been released, simply omitting the name of the Building Societies Association which has ceased sponsoring the farcical idea that UK retail lenders should be allowed to regulate themselves.

Banks and credit card issuers still think it's a good idea though...

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Heap's Giant Leap!

Another great discussion about distributed ledgers, this time focused on the music sector, hosted by the Copyright Hub at the Digital Catapult. A quick summary of the discussion along Chatham House lines to protect the innocent.

By now it's clear that people in different sectors are encountering very similar issues that might be solved by distributed ledgers, but each sector tends to have a different set of priorities that might mean one is faster to take advantage of the technology. The fact that the first solutions have been alternative currencies tells you that proponents of distributed ledgers are not shy of a challenge. Now music is to get the same treatment with key events this Friday and Saturday night featuring the release of Imogen Heap's song "Tiny Human" into a distributed ledger for 'hackers' to attempt to spoil the party, followed by a live Saturday night post mortem on what could be improved. No doubt future events will try to perfect the process.

Why music? 

The problems in the music industry (and most other segments of the entertainment market) are pretty well-rehearsed, with just about every stakeholder group (except the consumers, these days) split over whether digital technology is helping all the participants strike the right bargain or robbing them blind. The revenue flows (or lack of them) have been the subject of constant disruption from internet technology, with the advent of P2P file-sharing via Kazaa in 2001 and rewards-based crowdfunding through Artistshare in 2003.

But bigger obstacles to reaching a better settlement for all concerned lie in the notorious lack of data about who really created and/or worked on various tracks and albums; or even about what's really in many 'back catalogues'. Then there's the secrecy surrounding licensing/royalty deals and the snail's pace of royalty collection/distribution - not to mention who sampled what; whether a performance and related video was a private family affair or an attempt to build a public-facing YouTube channel; hacking digital rights management software; and file-sharing. 

A lot of these issues go away if you just focus on creating and dealing with new music in a more efficient way. And few of these issues are exclusive to music itself. They relate to any item whose status changes a lot and where a multitude of different parties are affected but find it hard to get all their systems and processes to talk to one another. 

So this seems another case for getting everyone's machines to share a single view of a marketplace that avoids 'capture' by any single intermediary. In fact, the 'ledger' they all share becomes that intermediary. In that case, all the participants' machines running the same ledger protocol would be able to see and agree who created which music in its myriad iterations and remixes; who has the various types of rights to exploit or consume the various versions; who owes what to whom; and even make payments in the ledger currency.

Will it work? There's only one way to find out - hence Imogen's giant leap on Friday night.

I reckon it'll be all the rage this Christmas ;-)

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