Midata – time to talk nitty gritty?

Posted on Friday 23rd November 2012 11:38

A few months ago I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 4’s flagship consumer affairs show, You and Yours, alongside Professor Nigel Shadbolt, to discuss the government’s Midata scheme proposals

The initiative is gaining significant momentum as consumer affairs minister, Jo Swinson, waded in on the debate by threatening to take legal action against firms that refuse to comply with new proposed legislation. Heavyweights such as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and consumer watchdog, Which? are some of the other big names backing the scheme.

Much of the conversation around Midata continues to be overwhelmingly focused around the benefits consumers will potentially reap from having access to the personal data that companies hold and how possessing information on spending habits will empower them to take better control of their finances and lifestyle choices.

My view remains that the Midata initiative is a fantastic idea and I fully support the concept of companies providing customers with their own data, be they supermarkets, energy providers or insurance companies. However, it is still just a concept. The reality of such a scheme ever coming to fruition, especially in the short term, is far from plausible.

The problem is the data. The longer this issue is avoided and brushed under the carpet, the more I worry that the scheme will never get off the ground. There seems to be a general presumption that companies will be able to provide consumers with their data in an ‘open standard’ format, not to mention a lot of skirting around the issue. The uncomfortable truth is that standardising and formatting data sharing processes between companies in order to aggregate content on an individual’s transactions and business dealings is an immense undertaking.

Within any single organisation, customer details may appear on several disparate databases and across different channels. What’s more, this information is frequently stored on legacy systems that are designed to support transactions as opposed to report them. Without single data warehouses, companies will require massive business intelligence efforts in order to collate and amalgamate their own information on consumers uniformly.

And then there is the question of how organisations will adequately collate this data. For example, the information that retailers might hold on customers will be highly dissimilar to the database containing an insurance provider’s dealings within an individual. To agree a common format across multiple sectors (let alone make that data consistent and useful to consumers) will be an extensive process in itself.

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills stated that consumers should be able to “access, retrieve and store their data securely” and that consumers should have the ability to “analyse, manipulate, integrate and share their data as they see fit”. This implies that Midata should function as a common portal, operating in the cloud with the capability to manipulate and integrate data so that individuals can access their own and others information, comparing themselves with their peer group and accessing data on trends.

If this is indeed the case, the business intelligence, system design, build, implementation, consultancy and support, not to mention on-going customer service requirements for Midata will be colossal. Providing this service to consumers will inherently entail huge costs, massive resources and will need time to implement and bed in. It will end up taking many years for the system to be developed and implemented, depending on the level of investment the government is prepared to throw at it, and therefore far too long a wait before the consumer can start to see any of the benefits.

Up until now we’ve seen nothing to indicate that Midata is anything more than political posturing. We’ve heard about the potential consumer benefits such an initiative would bring, but now I would like to see a more intelligent and realistic conversation around exactly how it will be rolled out, how data on such a massive scale will be collated and presented, how much will be invested and how much resource will be dedicated to the project, and importantly, when will consumers be able to access it.