Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

You’ve probably heard that “data is the new oil” (but you just need to know where to drill?). Or alternatively, that the growing lakes of “Big Data” hold all the answers, but they don’t necessarily tell us which questions to ask. It feels like Big Data is the cure for everything, yet far from solving our problems, it is simply adding to our confusion.

Cartoon by Thierry Gregorious (Sourced from Flickr under Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved)

There’s no doubt that customer, transaction, behavioral, geographic and demographic data points can be valuable for analysis and forecasting. When used appropriately, and in conjunction with relevant tools, this data can even throw up new insights. And when combined with contextual and psychometric analysis can give rise to whole new data-driven businesses.

Of course, we often use simple trend analysis to reveal underlying patterns and changes in behaviour. (“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”). But the core issue is, what is this data actually telling us? For example, if the busiest time for online banking is during commuting hourswhat opportunities does this present? (Rather than, “how much more data can we generate from even more frequent data capture….”)

I get that companies want to know more about their customers so they can “understand” them, and anticipate their needs. Companies are putting more and more effort into analysing the data they already have, as well as tapping into even more sources of data, to create even more granular data models, all with the goal of improving customer experience. It’s just a shame that few companies have a really good single view of their customers, because often, data still sits in siloed operations and legacy business information systems.

There is also a risk, that by trying to enhance and further personalise the user experience, companies are raising their customers’ expectations to a level that cannot be fulfilled. Full customisation would ultimately mean creating products with a customer base of one. Plus customers will expect companies to really “know” them, to treat them as unique individuals with their own specific needs and preferences. Totally unrealistic, of course, because such solutions are mostly impossible to scale, and are largely unsustainable.

Next week: Startup Governance


StartupVic’s Machine Learning / AI pitch night

Machine Learning and AI are such hot topics, that I was really intrigued by the prospect of this particular StartupVic pitch night. First, this was a chance to visit inspire9‘s recently established Dream Factory – a tech co-working facility, maker space, and VR lab in Melbourne’s western suburb of Footscray. Second, the Dream Factory, housed in a landmark building owned by Impact Investment Group, was a major beneficiary of LaunchVic funding, and this event could be seen as a showcase for Melbourne’s tech startup sector. Third, with so many buzzwords circling AI, it offered a great opportunity to help demystify some of the jargon and provide some practical insights.

Image sourced from StartupVic

Instead, the pitches felt underdone – probably not helped by the building’s acoustics, the poor PA system, and the inability of many of the audience to be able to read the presenters’ slides. I wasn’t expecting the founders to reveal the “secret sauce” of their algorithms, or to explain in detail how they program or train their “smart” applications. But I had hoped to hear some concrete evidence of how these emerging platforms actually work and how the resulting data is specifically analyzed and applied to client solutions.

With a tag line of “powering the future of mental health” the team at are hoping to have a positive impact in helping to reduce suicide rates. Unfortunately, judging by the way some key statistics are presented on their home page, the data (and the methodology) are not as clear as the core message.

Using technology to help scale the provision of mental health and well-being services, combined with mixed delivery methods, the solution aims to offer continuity of care. Picking up on user dialogue and providing some semi-automated and curated intervention, the presentation was big on phrases like “triage packages”, “customer journey”, “technical architecture”, “chatbots” and of course, “AI” itself, but I would have like a bit more explanation on how it worked.

I understand that the platform is designed to integrate with third-party providers, but how does this happen in practice?

Only when asked by the judges about their competitive advantage (as there are similar tools out there – see Limbr from a previous pitch night) did the presenters refer to their proprietary language models, developed with and based on user trials. This provides  a structured taxonomy, which is currently English-only, but it can be translated.

There were also questions about data privacy (not fully explained?) and sales channels – which may include workplace EAPs and health insurers.


According to the founder, “dashboards and KPIs only diagnose pain, Businest fixes it“. In short, this is intelligence business analysis for SMEs.

With a focus on tracking working capital and cashflow, as far as I can tell, Businest applies some AI on top of existing third-party accounting software. It identifies key metrics for a specific business, then provides coaching and videos to change business behaviour and improve financial performance. There is a patent pending in the US for the underlying algorithm, which prioritizes the KPIs.

Again, I was not totally clear how the desired results are achieved. For example, are SMEs benchmarked against their peers (e.g., by size/industry/geography/maturity/risk profile)? Do clients know what incremental benefits they should be able to generate over a given time period? How does the financial spreadsheet analysis assist with improving structural or operational efficiencies that are outside the realm of financial accounting?

Available under a freemium SaaS model, Businest is sold direct and via accountants and bookkeepers. A key to success will be how fast the product can scale – via partnering and its integration with Xero, MYOB and QuickBooks.


I must admit, I was initially curious, and then totally bemused, by this pitch. It started by asking some major philosophical and existentialist questions:

Q: How do we define “intelligence”?
Q: Are we alone? Or not alone?

No, this is not IBM’s Watson trained on the works of John-Paul Sartre (cf. Dark Star and the struggle with Cartesian Logic). Instead, it is an analytical and predictive app for Amazon sellers. It claims to know what products will sell, where and when. And with trading volumes worth $2.5m of goods per month, it must be doing something right. Serving Amazon sellers in the US and India (and Australia, once Amazon goes live here), AiHello charges fees based on fixed licences and transaction values. The apparent benefits to retailers are speed and savings.

Asked where the trading data is coming from, the presenter referred to existing trading platform APIs, and “big data and deep learning”. It also uses Amazon product IDs to make specific predictions – currently delivering 60% accuracy, but aiming for 90%. According to the founder, “Amazon focuses on buyers, we focus on sellers”. (Compare this, perhaps, to the approach by Etsy.)


A new service from the team at Pax Republic, this latest iteration is designed to avoid some of the policy and reputation issues involved with managing, supporting and protecting whistleblowers. Understanding that whistleblowers can pose an internal threat to brand value, and present a significant human risk, C-SIGHT provides a psychologically safe environment for the Board, C-suite and workforce alike, and can act as an early warning system before problems get out of hand.

Sold under a SaaS model, C-SIGHT analyses text-based and anonymous dialogue, with “real-time data sent to different AI apps”. I understood that C-SIGHT combines human and robot facilitation, while preserving anonymity, and also deploys natural language processing – but I didn’t fully understand how.

In one client use case, with the College of Surgeons, there were 1,000 “contributions” – again, it was not clear to me how this input was generated, captured, processed or analysed. Client pricing is based on the number of invitations sent and the number of these “contributions” – what the presenter referred to as an “instance” model (presumably he meant instance-based learning?).

Asked about privacy, C-SIGHT de-identifies contributions (to what degree was not clear), and operates outside the firewall. There was also a question from the judges about the use and analysis of idiom and the vernacular – I don’t believe this addressed in much detail, although the presenter did suggest that the platform could be used as a way to drive “citizen engagement”.

Overall, I was rather underwhelmed by these presentations, although each of them revealed a kernel of a good idea – while in the case of AiHello (which was the winner on the night), sales traction is very promising; and in the case of Businest, industry recognition, especially in the US, has opened up some key opportunities.

Next week: Bitcoin – to fork or not to fork?

Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?

In an earlier blog on privacy in the era of Big Data and Social Media, I explored how our “analog identities” are increasingly embedded in our digital profiles. In particular, the boundaries between personal/private information and public/open data are becoming so blurred that we risk losing sight of what individual, legal and commercial rights we have to protect or exploit our own identity. No wonder that there is so much interest in what blockchain solutions, cyber-security tools and distributed ledger technology can do to establish, manage and protect our digital ID – and to re-balance the near-Faustian pact that the illusion of “free” social media has created.

Exchanging Keys in “Ghostbusters” (“I am Vinz Clortho the Keymaster of Gozer”)

It’s over 20 years since “The Net” was released, and more than 30 since the original “Ghostbusters” film came out. Why do I mention these movies? First, they both pre-date the ubiquity of the internet, so it’s interesting to look back on earlier, pre-social media times. Second, they both reference a “Gatekeeper” – the former in relation to some cyber-security software being hijacked by the mysterious Praetorian organisation; the latter in relation to the “Keymaster”, the physical embodiment or host of the key to unleash the wrath of Gozer upon the Earth. Finally, they both provide a glimpse of what a totally connected world might look like – welcome to the Internet of Things!

Cultural references aside, the use of private and public keys, digital wallets and payment gateways to transact with digital currencies underpins the use of Bitcoin and other alt coins. In addition, blockchain solutions and cyber-security technologies are being deployed to streamline and to secure the transfer of data across both peer-to-peer/decentralised networks, and public/private, permissioned/permissionless blockchain and distributed ledger platforms. Sectors such as banking and finance, government services, the health industry, insurance and supply chain management are all developing proofs of concept to remove friction but increase security throughout their operations.

One of the (false) expectations that social media has created is that by giving away our own personal data and by sharing our own content, we will get something in return – namely, a “free” Facebook account or “free” access to Google’s search engine etc. What happens, of course, is that these tech companies sell advertising and other services by leveraging our use of and engagement with their platforms. As mere users we have few if any rights to decide how our data is being used, or what third-party content we will be subjected to. That might seem OK, in return for “free” social media, but none of the huge advertising revenues are directly shared with us as ordinary end consumers.

But just as Google and Facebook are facing demands to pay for news content, some tech companies are now trying to democratise our relationships with social media, mobile content and financial services, by giving end users financial and other benefits in return for sharing their data and/or being willing to give selected advertisers and content owners access to their personal screens.

Before looking at some interesting examples of these new businesses, here’s an anecdote based on my recent experience:

I had to contact Facebook to ask them to take down my late father’s account. Despite sending Facebook a scanned copy of the order of service from my father’s funeral, and references to two newspaper articles, Facebook insisted on seeing a copy of my father’s death certificate.

Facebook assumes that only close relatives or authorised representatives would have access to the certificate, but in theory anyone can order a copy of a death certificate from the UK’s General Register Office. Further, the copy of the certificate clearly states that “WARNING: A CERTIFICATE IS NOT EVIDENCE OF IDENTITY”. Yet, it appears that Facebook was asking to see the certificate as a way of establishing my own identity.

(Side note: A few years ago, I was doing some work for the publishers of Who’s Who Australia, which is a leading source of biographical data on people prominent in public life – politics, business, the arts, academia, etc. In talking to prospective clients, especially those who have to maintain their own directories of members and alumni, it was clear that “deceased persons” data can be very valuable to keep their records up to date. It can also be helpful in preventing fraud and other deception. Perhaps Facebook needs to think about its role as a “document of record”?)

So, what are some of the new tech businesses that are helping consumers to take control of their own personal data, and to derive some direct benefit from sharing their personal profile and/or their screen time:

  1. Unlockd: this Australian software company enables customers to earn rewards by allowing advertisers and content owners “access” to their mobile device (such as streaming videos from MTV).
  2. SPHRE: this international blockchain company is building digital platforms (such as Air) that will empower consumers to create and manage their own digital ID, then be rewarded for using this ID for online and mobile transactions.
  3. Secco: this UK-based challenger bank is part of a trend for reputation-based solutions (e.g., personal credit scores based on your social media standing), that uses Aura tokens as a form of peer-to-peer or barter currency, within a “social-economic community”.

Linked to these initiatives are increased concerns about identity theft, cyber-security and safety, online trust, digital certification and verification, and user confidence. Anything that places more power and control in the hands of end users as to how, when and by whom their personal data can be used has to be welcome.

Declaration of interest: through my work at Brave New Coin, a FinTech startup active in blockchain and digital assets, I am part of the team working with SPHRE and the Air project. However, all comments here are my own.

Next week: Investor pitch night at the London Startup Leadership Program

Summing up the #FinTech summit

Coinciding with the launch of the inaugural EY FinTech Australia Census 2016*, FinTech Australia’s first industry summit Collab/Collide was a major beneficiary of the initial round of funding from the Victorian government’s LaunchVic program. The summit provided a useful opportunity to survey the global landscape, to compare notes and of course, to network. But did we learn anything new?

6278fd_bc2f12c8b40744a281f9afbb37ba1a3emv2The summit was programmed around key FinTech themes of payment services, alternative funding, robo-advice, Blockchain, data and regulation. Participation by some key industry figures from Asia, Europe and the USA (both founders and investors) also provided some international perspective.

While Australia appears to be maintaining a top 5 position in the global FinTech rankings, our focus on things like P2P lending, payments and robo-advice risks losing sight of bigger opportunities in Blockchain assets, enterprise solutions and institutional services.

And although it was good to see a team from the Treasury Corporation of Victoria in the audience, as well some of their colleagues from DEDJTR, it was surprising that there was hardly any representation from among institutional investors (superannuation funds, asset managers, insurance industry), major financial institutions, or the traditional financial markets (exchanges, intermediaries, brokers, vendors)**.

Some of the best sessions were the comparative panels on Blockchain, regulation and funding. In particular, there was an interesting discussion on whether Australia should be worried or concerned about UK opportunities post-Brexit, or focus more on Asian markets. But with the development of reciprocal financial licensing arrangements between Australia and the UK, and Australia and Singapore (and between the UK and Singapore), ASIC is clearly trying to engage with both markets.

The Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison also took time out of his busy schedule to address the audience on the topic of Open Banking Standards, following on from the Productivity Commission’s Draft Report on Data Availability and Use. The overall goal is to have a system of FinTech data and operating standards that is “regulatory match fit”, that delivers frictionless inter-party transactions and enhanced industry participation and collaboration. For example: once the New Payment Platform launches in 2017, we should have more open access to transaction data; the ATO is implementing a “single-touch” payroll process; and ASIC is due to publish recommendations for the financial services Regulatory Sandbox by the end of 2016.

Unfortunately, given the changes in venue and content, the program struggled to stretch to a second full day, as audience numbers dwindled. Something for the organisers to think about next time? I would also advocate organising specific sessions, e.g., for B2B and B2C, or for vendors and institutions.

Finally, speaking to a member of the DEDJTR team, there is a clear desire on the part of the State government that the FinTech community will come together along with other market participants to figure out how to scale this emerging sector. In other words, how to turn the growing number of FinTech startups (often with directly competing products and services), hubs, incubators, accelerators and VC funds into a sustainable industry?

* For a handy summary of the EY survey, check out Lucinda de Jong’s blog for Timelio

** In the interests of full disclosure, a FinTech startup I work with, Brave New Coin (a market data vendor for Blockchain assets) was a Strategic Partner for the Summit

Next week: The Startup of Me v2.0