Smart Data Foundry

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This month sees the relaunch of the Global Open Finance Centre of Excellence (GOFCoE) as Smart Data Foundry. Here Bulletin speaks to Nick Hall, Interim Chief Commercial Officer, to find out more.

Can you briefly explain what Smart Data Foundry is, what it does and why it was established?

We were born out of the Open Banking industry. In 2018 new regulation came into effect that enabled people to move their consented banking data easily and securely across banks and other providers and from banking app to banking app. One of the main motivating aims of the UK government was to increase the levels of competition in the UK market, in particular to enable some of the new Financial Technology (FinTech) start-ups to start to collaborate or compete with the big high-street banks and deliver new innovations to the financial world.

The big promise of Open Banking – and later the idea of Open Finance (which extends the technology and the regulation beyond cards and current accounts into all aspects of your financial life) – was that it would enable all sorts of new services. The benefits to you and me, were not just the delivery of more convenient banking, which is useful but fairly unexciting to most of us, but also the unleashing of the data we create in our day-to-day financial transactions in order to put it to good use.

This last promise has been harder to realise. Partly because innovating around any kind of data is complex and partly because some of the exciting and interesting things you can do with data carry plenty of risks of compromising privacy or enabling financial crime.

About the same time that Open Banking first launched, three teams came together with one idea of how to help bring the promise to life. The University of Edinburgh, FinTech Scotland – the organisation supporting the Scottish FinTech cluster – and FDATA, the global association for companies operating in Open Banking – conceived of an idea for building a neutral, not-for-profit organisation that could enable private sector, public sector, and the voluntary sector to collaborate around unlocking financial data for good. This was the Smart Data Foundry purpose.

In 2020, thanks to early support from the Edinburgh Futures Institute (EFI) part of the Data-Driven Innovation (DDI) City Region Deal programme, the team built a business plan and secured its initial funding from UKRI.

When we first opened our doors, it was as the Global Open Finance Centre of Excellence, given our role in driving benefit out of Open Finance data. Since then, the Open Banking and Open Finance world is inspiring data sharing movements in many other sectors: energy, telco, transportation, for example. People are now speaking more and more about smart data as the way to encapsulate the world of benefits from wider data sharing and consumption.

We were also finding that, while there was much value in unlocking financial data, some of the biggest challenges facing us today: inequality and poverty, climate change, helping small business recover and survive, all require bringing together many sorts of data. As we come into 2022, we wanted to reflect our original purpose but on a broader platform and so we are launching under the name of Smart Data Foundry. An organisation designed to unlock financial data for good – not only to do good but also to create social impact that lasts for good.

Smart Data Foundry is based in the Bayes Centre.

Why is FinTech such an exciting sector to be involved in?

FinTech really has the power to change our lives in a good way. I have spent over 25 years working in the Financial Services (FS) sector – not just in the UK, but the US, Europe and Asia – and two things have been a constant in FS in all that time and in all those places: peoples’ financial lives have a profound impact on their overall life and wellbeing in general, and yet people are at best disengaged, and worse, misinformed, about much of their financial affairs. It is a sector characterised by unwanted advisors, intermediaries, and a ludicrous amount of jargon creating a “confusopoly” for the status quo.

FinTech holds that promise of making something that has a big impact on all of us, not just easier and friction-free, but much better, more engaging, more relevant and more timely.

Finally, as a data geek, I find there is something about financial data that is particularly exciting – and that’s what it reveals about what we think and do. The data that the FinTechs can harness shows how all of us choose to spend, or save, how we evaluate future risk, and how we trade off long-term security with short-term fulfilment. These are incredibly valuable insights into peoples’ behaviour which we can crowdsource and use to create valuable insight and foresight about the world.

This February marks two years since Smart Data Foundry was established, what has been your highlight from that time?

I joined in September 2020, just as we celebrated our first win. We signed our first Data Sharing Agreement (DSA) with NatWest Group, which meant we could build our first data asset. While the pandemic disrupted many of our early plans, it also created a clear public need for just the kind of economic insights we were set up for. Working with the NatWest Open Banking and Analytics teams we took a de-identified sample of one million customers, stored this safely in the Safe Haven, operated for us by the EPCC, and created a stream of weekly aggregated data, revealing insights into how the earnings, spending and bank balances of one million citizens changed over the period of the pandemic and how they continue to change, as we move into recovery.

This Covid-19 Citizen insights project was a big highlight for so many reasons. We demonstrated the ability for multiple teams within the Foundry to deliver new capability at speed. We had to design a seven-step data governance protocol to properly take in the data safely and securely. Our data science team built working dashboards in just a few weeks. This included a dual path for processing of the data to test for data accuracy. Our senior advisors in FDATA and FinTech Scotland helped to introduce us to multiple government departments who were keen to receive the flow of insights we produced. It required all parts of this new team to contribute to the success.

The success of this project also owed a lot to our University of Edinburgh connections. There was a strong working relationship between the EPCC and the NatWest team, which gave us early trust and credibility. The EPCC Safe Haven had built a reputation for data security with its work with the NHS, which again gave the NatWest data team confidence in the service.

This first service has now enabled us to expand from one data supplier to six and we are developing a similar service to this around Covid-19 SME insights with a more complex network of partners and with the objective of creating a service that could serve the needs of not only public sector, but academia and private sector. 

What future projects are you most excited for as Smart Data Foundry grows?

With more than 50 people across the Foundry, who are constantly generating ideas and refining what we are doing, then new, exciting stuff bubbles up every day, but there are a few that I feel particularly excited about.

For a start we have been working flat-out on delivering an Innovation Environment for several months now, and we are all working towards July 2022 to launch our Minimum Viable Proposition (MVP) and open the Foundry to our FinTech partners and clients. This will be the platform for helping new businesses work with safe copies of our data to test their algorithms and business models. There are plenty of accelerator platforms out there, but we hope to be one of the first in the market to supply not just a workbench of data tools but one with high quality, high-volume, high-fidelity data to help new businesses hone their designs.

The second thing that excites me is some of the more innovative things we can do around professional development and mentorship. I am passionate about helping build careers in data science and analytics. I have spent most of my career building, developing and commercialising analytics teams and we have the opportunity at the Smart Data Foundry to build a first-of-its-kind, purpose-led, variety-rich, entry-model for graduates and others looking to get into a data and analytics profession. We started last year with eight summer interns and five part-time PhDs and we’ve now signed up our first two full-time graduates. We have a tonne of ideas that we want to build into the development of this cadre of newcomers: data skills, consulting skills, data ethics thinking, social impact measurement, working with FinTechs and social enterprises. This will be data meets financial services meets social change. I think we’ll have a lot of fun building the programme together, creating a future generation of talented data and business professionals as well as have a lot of impact at the same time.

Anything else you’d like to add?

One thing that has become very clear over the 18 months I’ve been part of the team is that it’s almost impossible to track everything that is going on across the University, but the opportunities to collaborate and complement what Edinburgh is doing are huge. So, I encourage you to check out the website, follow us on social media and speak to us directly if you want to find out more or if you think there are some important connections to make.

The Smart Data Foundry website will go live on 16 February: Smart Data Foundry website.

Photography: MKJ Photography; GettyImages