Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Swipe should lay the ground for digital wallets in UK

Increased spending through NFC can weaken the dependence on chip and PIN

Digital wallets have not yet taken off in the UK. They tick boxes for user benefits, notably in making it easier to pay and allowing people to see the balance of cash in the wallet, but the big players are not pushing the smartphones apps or dedicated devices here; and Google has kept quiet about any UK launch.

If there’s a big difference between here and the US, where they are becoming established, it’s that we’re firmly wedded to chip and PIN payments. We feel more secure punching those four numbers into a keypad, so the retailers prefer the technology and the banks remain committed. It would be a massive change for all three to switch to swipe and pay by smartphone.

But the first steps have been taken. Banks are issuing more cards with a near field communication facility for swipe payments, some retailers are taking them up for small transactions, and Transport for London has stopped taking cash in favour of swipe cards for bus fares. Between them they are beginning to build a momentum towards people paying by swipe every day.

It’s probably two, three, four years away, but it should take us to a point where chip and PIN is not as precious to the UK public and businesses, especially those in retail. That’s when they will be more open to using digital wallets, and the point at which Google and its competitors are ready for a push.

If the banks take a lead there would be a better chance of building momentum, as consumers would feel more comfortable with that direct link to their current account. That could provide some interesting competition between the financial institutions and tech companies.

It all comes down working with the consumer mindset, and that takes time to change. But swipe payments will take the UK a step towards digital wallets.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Why you won’t get systems integrators out of government

Ambitious projects demand expertise that won’t always be found in-house

“SMEs good, systems integrators (SIs) bad” was one of the earliest messages to come from the Conservatives on UK government IT. Before they came to power their lead voice on the subject, the now government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, attributed many of Whitehall’s IT woes to complex projects with big contracts that gave too much power and too much taxpayers’ money to SIs.

Since 2010 the coalition government has taken some big steps to break the pattern – the £100 million limit on IT contracts, a two year limit on hosting contracts, not allowing firms to run service provision and systems integration in the same area, development of the G Cloud procurement framework – and given SMEs a better chance to grab some of the market. But one message to emerge from Whitehall Media’s Public Sector ICT Conference was that the SIs are still big in the field and they’re not going away.

Several speakers raised the subject, and none claimed or forecast that the SIs’ presence is seriously diminished. There was talk of their role changing – to provide infrastructure for innovators and offer a wider range of distinct services for different projects – but there was an underlying assumption that they will continue to play a major role.

It all comes down to complexity and expertise. Government at all levels is trying to use IT to change the way it works, the Digital by Default strategy aims to make digital services the norm, and there are still major projects such as Universal Credit. These require a lot of expertise – in understanding the technology, programme engineering and risk management – that government often lacks in-house. And the SMEs may have the in-depth expertise for parts of a process, but they’re not well placed to bring together the myriad elements of a big programme. 

Government has long been trying to build these skills in-house, but it is difficult to keep up. The technology changes quickly and the private sector is always ready to lure the best and brightest towards higher pay cheques. There are always going to be gaps in government’s skills pool, and it has to buy in expertise to fill those gaps. The message from the conference speakers was that government shouldn’t try to deny this, but manage it to do the best for itself and the taxpayer.

The government’s rules are likely to help in limiting the long term commitments to SIs; sustained efforts to build in-house skills should ensure there are some experts committed to a role in public service; and government needs to retain the intellectual capital from large projects. Measures such as these can make a difference in changing the balance, making government a more powerful customer.

That’s a more realistic relationship to aim for than banishing SIs from government IT.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Friday, 31 October 2014

Give big data a chance to evolve

Data science is going to involve trial and error, and the costs of failure have to be contained

Listening to the presentations at the Information Age Data Leadership conference yesterday, it was noticeable that the term ‘big data’ didn’t come up with the frequency some of us expected. It was even treated a little disdain by a couple of speakers, portrayed as a term with more hype than substance behind it.

It reflected some of the lessons that emerged from the conference: that data has to be properly prepared to obtain clear insights; that it’s easier to prepare data held inside your enterprise; and that a lot of big data, despite all of its promises, resides outside the enterprise. The hard part in harnessing big data is not just to get at all that juicy information on the outside, but to get into a shape from which you can produce something worthwhile.

It was notable that in the stand out case study, on how Network Rail is learning a stream of valuable lessons from its data, which came predominantly from inside the organisation, making it much easier to manage. And a strong impression to emerge from the day was that you can get the best results in the short term by limiting your ambition, looking at what you have and can reasonably use rather than making grand plans to tap into streams from the outside world.

I’m not one to write off the potential of big data; it’s the continuation of a trend of bringing together and analysing information that is already producing plenty of real value for business. But it is probably being talked up by its evangelists to the point where it will disappoint a lot of expectations in the short term.

Harnessing all that unwieldy data from outside the enterprise is going to be a massive task, made more difficult by the unstructured nature of a lot of the information, and it will take a long time for best practice to develop. The emergence of data science will probably provide answers over time, but the discipline is in its early days and there aren’t yet many data scientists around. It will probably be well into the next decade before it matures, and some people are going to waste a lot of time and money in unproductive big data projects before then.

Which is why expectations should be kept in check, projects run on a small scale and not used for business-critical decisions until the techniques have been proven. Trial and error is inevitable in opening up any field of science, but data science is going to happen in the business world, not the controlled conditions of a laboratory, and it’s important that the errors are not too costly.

Business will benefit most from big data by allowing it evolve, not letting it loose in a big bang.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See