Monday, 2 February 2015

Humans, Not Big Data, Must Benefit From Opening Up The Banks

One of the 'good news' items in last year's Autumn Statement was the endorsement of an Open Data Institute report on how innovators could make better use of bank data on our behalf (instead of on the banks' behalf). Last week, the Treasury followed up with a call for evidence "on how best to deliver an open standard for application programming interfaces (APIs) in UK banking and... whether more open data in banking could benefit consumers."

This is important, because enabling our own machines to start crunching our financial data on our behalf is key to humans winning the race against Big Data.

'Open data' involves enabling public access to data by connecting data sets using uniform resource identifiers ('Linked Data') and publishing data about them in machine-readable formats. While the government and other public institutions have done a good job of opening up public data sets so far, our private institutions are lagging behind, as discussed here. That's because they benefit from making sure we know less than them about our own requirements - 'information asymmetry'.

The Midata initiative was the first to aim at restoring the balance in favour of consumers, by taking aim at energy utilities, telecoms providers and banks. Now the energy companies face being opened up like so many tin cans by smart metering, while the telecoms market looks like it will go from bad to worse. Banks have also proved a tougher nut to crack. Yes, some people can download their current account data via internet banking. But in addition to consumers, there are 4.5 million small businesses out there that need a hell of a lot more than that. So far, it's taken regulatory action just to start the process of improving access to small business credit data and making a market in rejected small business loan applications. Now the Treasury is trying to force the pace on the technology necessary to support all that.

The ODI's recommendations for opening up banking are: 
  • banks should agree an open API standard to support third party access to bank data - basically firms that can help you make sense of the data (but Big Data firms will try to persuade you to share it with them too);
  • independent guidance should be provided on technology, security and data protection standards that banks can adopt to ensure data sharing meets all legal requirements; 
  • an industry wide approach should be established to vet third party software applications and publish a list of vetted applications as open data - this would allow visibility of firms that are acting on consumers' behalf and those who are not;
  • standard data on Personal Current Account terms and conditions should be published by banks as open data; and 
  • credit data should be made available as open data.
My main concern is that requiring agreement on 'standards' as a precondition for opening up banking will enable the banks to delay the whole process by a decade - as they did with Faster Payments. As was recommended by the security working group in the Midata initiative, I would prefer to see banks required to immediately make their data available to each consumer/SME in whatever open format the banks choose, while adhering to common data security protocols, and leave it to the open data community to figure out how to re-format and display whatever rubbish they dish up.

Apart from complaints by the banks, Treasury officials expect to hear positive contributions from consumer groups, other financial services providers, financial technology firms and app and software designers.

Let's not disappoint them. This is a good opportunity to ensure the government clears the way for innovation that puts you and me at the heart of financial services, without mistakenly creating further barriers in the process.

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