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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.


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