Bridging the gap: how Fintechs and ‘big business’ can work together

by Colin Carmichael, UK Fintech Director

Everyone’s talking about Fintechs – but what does ‘Fintech’ really mean?  It’s a generic term that loosely groups a number of innovative technical organisations within Financial Services.

As the Fintech director for Sopra Steria, I believe I know all about Fintech. To me, Fintech is all about change – introducing new, fresh ideas and ways of working – and making them happen. I’ve worked in financial services across the UK, Europe and further afield for many years – and organisations of all sizes find it hard to change; the bigger the organisation – the greater the challenge. Change means that organisations have to think and act differently to introduce brand new ways of working to deliver desirable services to their customers.  The customer really is king and new products and services need to be built to their wishes (rather than the ‘old fashioned’ way of creating a product and selling it hard). What’s more, new, faster technology and access to huge amounts of data have made this issue more acute as it’s raised customer expectations. Put simply – there’s so much to think about and to do to get ahead and stay ahead.

Organisations need to keep up with the very latest ideas – and still deliver a reliable and robust service. And it’s a fact that incorporating new technology is how they will do it. So why is it so challenging for Fintechs and big players to work together? All too often, Fintechs struggle to get their ideas to the right decision makers – and established businesses are nervous of too much change.

The biggest hurdles are often company politics, internal structures, old processes and course – the difficulty of incorporating brand new ideas into ‘old’ systems. For Fintech’s, it’s tricky to get the right contacts at the right level – and to also ensure their ideas are brought to life safely and securely.  For banks and insurers, introducing new, untried and tested ideas is hugely risky and it can take a long time – as well as effort and money to get it right.

What’s needed is a bridge between the Fintechs and the more traditional organisations – to help them to work productively together. Organisations like Sopra Steria have platforms that are at the heart of many of today’s large businesses – and they also understand existing processes, procurement and politics which often stand in the way of getting things done. By working together, Fintechs, established players and platform organisations can listen to and learn from each other, in order to fast track innovation and get the results they need – quickly and cost effectively.

So, my advice to banks and insurance companies as well as the Fintechs is to work and collaborate with a platform provider from the start. Fintechs can safely test and prove their worth in ‘virtual factories’ using real systems and data – and financial organisations can be confident about bringing the best and brightest ideas to market without huge risk. It puts new Fintechs in touch with established players – and accelerates change. And that’s what we all want.

So, maybe, we shouldn’t be using the term ‘fintech’ to refer to just new and upcoming technology companies. After all – aren’t we all Fintechs? Perhaps instead we should be focusing on partnerships and collaborations between new technology companies, established organisations and the role platform players have to accelerate change.

It really is true. It’s not what you know but who you know that makes all the difference.

Quantum Computers: A Beginner’s Guide

What they are, what they do, and what they mean for you

What if you could make a computer powerful enough to process all the information in the universe?

This might seem like something torn straight from fiction, and up until recently, it was. However with the arrival of quantum computing, we are about to make it reality. Recent breakthroughs by Intel and Google have catapulted the technology into the news. We now have lab prototypes, Silicon Valley start-ups and a multi-billion dollar research industry. Hype is on the rise, and we are seemingly on the cusp of a quantum revolution so powerful that it will completely transform our world.

On the back of this sensationalism trails confusion. What exactly are these machines and how do they work? And, most importantly, how will they change the world in which we live?

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At the most basic level, the difference between a standard computer and a quantum computer boils down to one thing: information storage. Information on standard computers is represented as bits– values of either 0 or 1, and these provide operational instructions for the computer.

This differs on quantum computers, as they store information on a physical level so microscopic that the normal laws of nature no longer apply. At this minuscule level, the laws of quantum mechanics take over and particles begin to behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways. As a result, these devices have an entirely different system of storing information: qubits, or rather, quantum bits.

Unlike the standard computer’s bit, which can have the value of either 0 or 1, a qubit can have the value of 0, 1 or both 0 and 1 at the same time. It can do this because of one of the fundamental (and most baffling) principles of quantum mechanics- quantum superposition, which is the idea that one particle can exist in multiple states at the same time. Put another way: imagine flipping a coin. In the world as we know it (and therefore the world of standard computing), you can only have one of two results: heads or tails. In the quantum world, the result can be heads and tails.

What does all of this this mean in practice? In short, the answer is speed. Because qubits can exist in multiple states at the same time, they are capable of running multiple calculations simultaneously. For example, a 1 qubit computer can conduct 2 calculations at the same time, a 2 qubit computer can conduct 4, and a 3 qubit computer can conduct 8- increasing exponentially. Operating under these rules, quantum computers bypass the “one-at-a-time” sequence of calculation that a classical computer is bound by. In the process, they become the ultimate multi-taskers.

To give you a taste of what that kind speed might look like in real terms, we can look back to 2015, when Google and Nasa partnered up to test an early prototype of a quantum computer called D-Wave 2X. Taking on a complex optimisation problem, D-Wave was able to work at a rate roughly 100 million times faster than a single core classical computer and produced a solution in seconds. Given the same problem, a standard laptop would have taken 10,000 years.

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Given their potential for speed, it is easy to imagine a staggering range of possibilities and use cases for these machines. The current reality is slightly less glamorous. It is inaccurate to think of quantum computers as simply being “better” versions of classical computers. They won’t simply speed up any task run through them (although they may do that in some instances). They are, in fact, only suited to solving highly specific problems in certain contexts- but there’s still a lot to be excited about.

One possibility that has attracted a lot of fanfare lies in the field of medicine. Last year, IBM made headlines when they used their quantum computer to successfully simulate the molecular structure of beryllium hydride, the most complex molecule ever simulated on a quantum machine. This is a field of research which classical computers usually have extreme difficulty with, and even supercomputers struggle to cope with the vast range of atomic (and sometimes quantum) complexities presented by complex molecular structures. Quantum computers, on the other hand, are able to read and predict the behaviour of such molecules with ease, even at a minuscule level. This ability is significant not just in an academic context; it is precisely this process of simulating molecules that is currently used to produce new drugs and treatments for disease. Harnessing the power of quantum computing for this kind of research could lead to a revolution in the development of new medicines.

But while quantum computers might set in motion a new wave of scientific innovation, they may also give rise to significant challenges. One such potentially hazardous use case is the quantum computer’s ability to factorise extremely large numbers. While this might seem relatively harmless at first sight, it is already stirring up anxieties in banks and governments around the world. Modern day cryptography, which ensures the security of the majority of data worldwide, relies on complex mathematical problems- tied to factorisation- that classical computers have insufficient power to solve. Such problems, however, are no match for quantum computers, and the arrival of these machines could render modern methods of cryptography meaningless, leaving everything from our passwords and bank details to even state secrets extremely vulnerable, able to be hacked, stolen or misused in the blink of an eye.

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Despite the rapid progress that has been made over the last few years, an extensive list of obstacles still remain, with hardware right at the top. Quantum computers are extremely delicate machines, and a highly specialised environment is required to produce the quantum state that gives qubits their special properties. For example, they must be cooled to near absolute zero (roughly the temperature of outer space) and are extremely sensitive to any kind of interference from electricity or temperature. As a result, today’s machines are highly unstable, and often only maintain their quantum states for just a few milliseconds before collapsing back into normality- hardly practical for regular use.

Alongside these hardware challenges marches an additional problem: a software deficit. Like a classical computer, quantum computers need software to function. However, this software has proved extremely challenging to create. We currently have very few effective algorithms for quantum computers, and without the right algorithms, they are essentially useless- like having a Mac without a power button or keyboard. There are some strides being made in this area (QuSoft, for example) but we would need to see vast advances in this field before widespread adoption becomes plausible. In other words, don’t expect to start “quoogling” any time soon.

So despite all the hype that has recently surrounded quantum computers, the reality is that now (and for the foreseeable future) they are nothing more than expensive corporate toys: glossy, futuristic and fascinating, but with limited practical applications and a hefty price tag attached. Is the quantum revolution just around the corner? Probably not. Does that mean you should forget about them? Absolutely not.

Containers: Power & Scale

by Richard Hands, Technical Architect

In my last blog post, we looked at the background of Containers. In this piece, we will explore what they can do and their power to deliver modern microservices.

What can they do?

Think of containers on a ship.  This is the most readily used visual analogy for containers. A large quantity of containers, all holding potentially different things, but all sitting nice and stable on a single infrastructure platform, gives a great mental picture to springboard from.

Containers are to Virtual Machines, what Virtual Machines were to straight physical hardware.  They are a new layer of abstraction, which allows us to get more ‘bang for our buck’.  In the beginning, we had dedicated hardware, which performed its job well, but in order to scale your solution you had to buy more hardware. This was difficult and expensive. Along came Virtual Machines, which allowed us to utilise much more commoditised hardware, and scale up within that, by adding more instances of a VM, but again, this still came with quite a cost.

To spin up a new VM, you have to ensure that you have enough remaining hardware on the VM servers. If you are using subscription or licensed operating systems, you have to consider that etc.  Now along comes containers. These containers literally contain only the pieces of code, and libraries necessary, to run their particular application. They rely on the underlying Infrastructure of the machine they are running on (be it physical or virtual).  We can typically run 10-20x more containers PER HOST than if we were to try putting the same application directly on the VM, and scale up by scaling the number of VM’s.

Orchestration for power

Containers help us solve the problems of today in far more bite-sized chunks than ever before.  They lend themselves perfectly to microservices.  Being able to write a microservice, and then build a container that holds just that microservice and its supporting architecture, be it spring boot, wildfly swarm, vertex, etc., gives us an immense amount of flexibility for development.  The problem comes when you want to orchestrate all of the microservices into a cohesive application, and add in scalability, service reliability, and all of the other pieces that a business requires to run successfully.  Trying to do all of this by hand would be an incomprehensible challenge.

There is a solution however, and it comes in the form of Kubernetes.

Kubernetes is an open-source platform designed to automate deploying, scaling, and operating application containers.” (http://kubernetes.io)

Kubernetes gives us a container run environment that allows us to declaratively, rather than imperatively define our run requirements for our application.  Again let’s look back to our older physical or VM models for the imperative definition:

“I need to run my application on that server.”

“I need a new server to run my application on, and it must have x memory and y disk”

This approach always requires justifications, and far more thought around HA considerations such as failover, as we are specifying what we want our application to run on.

Most modern applications, being stateless by design, and certainly containers, don’t generally require that level of detail of the hardware that they are running on. They simply don’t care as they’re designed to be small discrete components which work together with others.  The declarations look more like:

“I want 10 copies of this container running to ensure that I’ve got sufficient load coverage, and I don’t want more than 2 down at any one time.”

“I want 10 copies of this container running, but I want a capability to increase that if cpu or memory usage exceeds x% for y% time, and then return to 10 once load has fallen back below z

These declarations are far more about the level of application service that we want to provide, than about hardware, which in a modern commoditised market, is how things should be.

Kubernetes is the engine, which provides this facility but also so much more. For example with Kubernetes we can declare that we want x and y helper processes co-located with our application, so that we are building composition whilst preserving one application per container.

Auto scaling, load balancing, health checks, replication, storage systems, updates, all of these things can be managed for our container run environment by Kubernetes.  Overall, it is a product that requires far more in depth reading than I can provide in a simple blog post, so I shall let you go and read at http://kubernetes.io

Last thoughts

To conclude, it is evident that containers have already changed the shape of the IT world, and will continue to do so at an exponential pace.  With public, hybrid, and private cloud computing becoming ‘the norm’ for both organisations, and even governments, containers will be the shift which helps us break down the barriers from traditional application development into a true microservices world. Container run systems will help us to break down the old school walls of hardware requirements, thus freeing development to provide true business benefit.

Follow Richard Hands on Twitter to keep up to date with his latest thoughts.

How the Equality Act 2010 affects you

Most of us use online services such as banking, travel and social media everyday with little thought as to how we can access or use them. However, this isn’t the case for many users, including employees.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 legislation, which previously provided protection against direct discrimination, has been updated to the Equality Act 2010 (except Northern Ireland). The Equality Act became legal on 6 April 2011, and changes the law to brings disability, sex, race, and other types of discrimination under one piece of legislation.

One major change is that the Equality Act 2010 now includes perceived disability and in-direct discrimination, making it easier for claimants to bring successful legal proceeding against businesses and public bodies.

What it means

The Equality Act essentially means that all public bodies or businesses providing goods, facilities or services to members of the public, including employees (For example: retail, HR, and councils) must make fair and reasonable adjustments to ensure services are accessible and do not indirectly discriminate. Being fair and reasonable means taking positive steps to ensure that disabled people can access online services. This goes beyond simply avoiding discrimination. It requires service providers to anticipate the needs of disabled customers.

Benefits of compliance

UK retailers are missing out on an estimated £11.75 billion a year in potential online sales because their websites fail to consider the needs of people with disabilities (Click-Away Pound Survey 2016).

In addition, 71% (4.3 million) of disabled online users will simply abandon websites they find difficult to use. Though representing a collective purchasing power of around 10% of the total UK online spend, most businesses are completely unaware they’re losing income, as only 7% of disabled customers experiencing problems contact the business.

How to comply with the Equality Act

The best way to satisfy the legal requirement is to have your website tested by disabled users. This should ideally be undertaken by a group of users with different disabilities, such as motor and cognitive disabilities, and forms of visual impairment. Evidence of successful tests by disabled users could be invaluable in the event of any legal challenge over your website’s accessibility.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is the international organisation concerned with providing standards for the web, and publishes the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0), which are a good indicator of what standard the courts would reasonably expect service providers to follow to ensure that their websites are accessible.

WCAG provides three ‘conformance levels’. These are known as Levels A, AA and AAA. Each level has a series of checkpoints for accessibility – known as Priority 1, 2 and 3 checkpoints. Public bodies such as the government adhere to Priority 2 – Level AA accessibility as standard.

According to these standards, websites must satisfy Priority 1 – Level A, satisfying this checkpoint is a basic requirement and very easy to implement. Priority 2 – Level AA, satisfying this checkpoint will remove significant barriers for customers. Finally, Priority 3 – Level AAA, is the highest level of accessibility and will ensure most disabled customers can access services, and requires specific measures to be implemented.

Read the Equality act 2010 quick start guides to find out more about how this affects you.

Shifting from analogue to digital public services – citizens want joined up public services

I highlighted the positive view citizens have about digital public services in my last blog. And their appetite for more. I now want to address some of their concerns and why doubt the ability of government to continue to deliver.

The digital disruption brought about by new technologies is transforming the interaction between citizens, business and the public sector.

Citizens compare public services with innovative platform business models provided by digital trendsetters like Apple, Google and Amazon. I expect simplicity and even friendliness when I talk to Alexa or Siri.

What did we find? Government needs to join the dots

This year’s research shows that digital public services fall short of the best commercial services. While 64% of UK citizens said digital public services were advanced this falls to just 30% when they are asked to compare them to commercial services.

The UK Government can take some comfort from the comparison with France (18%), Norway (19%) and Germany (20%). And of course, we understand that governments face unique challenges, as ‘customers’ often have no choice when using public services that can be a last resort.  Governments need to address complex and long term needs like the reduction of re-offending or the treatment of chronic health conditions.

But citizens told us of their frustrations about the need to input information many times, including various passwords, the multiple steps needed to access services and an inability track progress. Some of these issues are being addressed by the UK Government, including through new platforms such as Verify and Notify. And they have flagged an intention to ‘improve citizen service across channels’ through a new Transformation (not digital) Strategy.

However, too often governments fail to meet citizen’s expectations when it reproduces its analogue bureaucratic procedures in a digitised way. Siloed service delivery approaches, with multiple websites and fragmented service delivery, organised around internal institutional structures are no longer acceptable. Which is why the number one priority for 44% of the UK citizens surveyed was the creation of a one-stop digital portal for undertaking interactions which need to be performed with multiple agencies (and this was a common priority across France, Norway and Germany).

Improving the experience of citizens in a revolutionary way

Citizens expect their public services to be designed with a user-driven perspective. And to adapt to different user profiles and needs. Through intelligent re-use of data and information previously generated or provided by citizens, governments can shift from reactive to proactive service delivery practices.

In a reactive service, the citizen is always responsible for starting the service demand, properly identifying herself and providing the required information. In a proactive service, the public sector knows its citizens, knows their life circumstances and current needs, and provides them the space to voice and signal their requests and preferences.

This enables the public sector to serve citizens in a personalised fashion about their rights, their duties and the services available. And to reach out to them to receive the authorisation to complete the service on their behalf.

This capacity to collect, combine and process data in a coherent way to better serve citizens must be a key feature of digital public services. And this needs a whole-of-government effort to exchange information across the public sector. With the key building blocks – common architecture, interoperability framework, digital identity system – in place to enable integrated service delivery.

Developing a user-driven approach also implies that the public sector’s capacities, workflows, business processes, operations need to be adapted to the rapidly evolving digital age. The challenge is not to introduce digital technologies but to integrate and embed them right from the start into efforts to modernise services.

I’d like to hear your views on how policies can be made digital by design, mobilising new technologies to rethink and re-engineer processes or open new channels of communication and engagement with citizens. And feel free to get in touch if you’d like more information on our research with Ipsos.

Citizens can feel the benefits of digital public services but are concerned about the ability of government to keep pace with their needs

As companies have transformed themselves with digital technologies, citizens are calling on governments to follow suit.

By digitising, the public sector can provide services that meet the evolving needs of citizens, even in a period of tight budgets and complex challenges.

This is the second year that Sopra Steria has asked the researchers at Ipsos to conduct a survey of 1000 citizens, from a broad range of social groups and across the United Kingdom, to understand their experience of and expectations for digital government. The same survey took place in France, Germany and Norway. So we have an opportunity to compare how citizens in the UK experience digital with others across Europe.

What did we find?

Citizens expect public services to be designed and delivered in a simple and intuitive way.

This year’s research shows that citizens recognise the efforts made by governments to use digital channels to streamline their interactions. 64% of the UK citizens surveyed described digital public services as advanced, compared to just 42% in Germany, 66% in France and 75% in Norway. The UK Government should seek to learn from experience of Norway, which has long used technology to streamline processes.

We asked citizens to describe the current degree of digital service development across Government

Citizens continue to support investment in digital public services. 75% of citizens surveyed in the UK said government should press ahead with plans to digitise public services. 25% described this as ‘an absolute priority’. Health is judged the most important public service to digitise in the future. 54% of citizens in the UK said health was the priority for investment, an increase of 5% in the 12 months since the last survey.

The research found that citizens also recognise the positive impact digital is having on the quality of public services. 58% of the UK citizens surveyed said that the introduction of online channels and services had improved the quality of public services, compared to 53% in France, 65% in Norway and 57% in Germany.

So far, so good – but what about the future of digital public service delivery?

Governments are working on simplifying access through the development of simple organisational hubs for digital government services. Fully developing this approach requires governments to achieve significant levels of interoperability of public sector information systems and, at times, cross-organisational service solutions.

Citizens are cautious when asked about the prospects of making further progress. 47% of the citizens surveyed said they did not believe the public sector had the necessary skills to make progress (which is similar to our own survey of civil servants last year). And France is the only country surveyed where citizens expressed confidence in their government’s will AND ability to continue to make progress.

We asked citizens for their views on the will and ability of governments to make progress with digital public services

The UK might learn from France and other countries that are seeking to introduce incentives across the public sector to help bring down cultural barriers in hierarchical and centralised administrative cultures. And develop a human resources strategy that helps develop, attract and retain vital data skills that facilitate collaboration.

In my next blog I will be looking in more detail at why citizens are so cautious about future prospects for digital public services. And how governments can address their concerns and shift away from the ‘vending machine’ model of service delivery.

In the meantime I’d like to hear your thoughts on the survey, including great examples of digital public services and how obstacles were overcome. And get in touch if you would like further details of the survey.

Make way for accessibility

I recently came across this fascinating report on the help extended by a computer scientist for a little girl with severe memory loss. It is an extraordinary example of the efforts of an individual in addressing an accessibility problem very effectively. Close on the heels of this story, there was the big announcement of a new Microsoft app being released for public use called “Seeing AI”. This app is perhaps one of the most intuitive tools out there for people with visual impairment and has been built with a lot of thought. I remember following this project a couple of years ago and wondering if only such large scale developments can bring about a change, or is it a good idea to keep working  on humble ideas, while not holding our breath for one big change to improve our lives. In reality, we need both just now – big technical corporations investing heavily in researching on ground breaking solutions, as well as small measures from individuals giving their best shot in ensuring someone feels comfortable in their everyday life.

Earlier this month, the United Nations Association-UK published a factsheet to mark the International Day for Persons with Disabilities, which indicates a grim situation for people with disabilities. Disabled people are four times more likely to be out of work than non-disabled people and the poverty rate is twice as high in comparison too. According to another factsheet published by the Papworth trust, disabled people experience much lower economic living standards than their peers, which is again attributed to increasing rate of unemployment. This deeply concerning trend needs to be immediately addressed on many levels. One of them is to improve the confidence of people with disability in approaching employment opportunities and to provide them with an environment in which they can operate comfortably. Here in Sopra Steria, our Company CEO Vincent Paris has reflected similar thoughts about being an employer with empathy. We have to think of being more proactive in engaging people with disabilities in our work places and also to engage better with those amongst us with disabilities, so they have the motivation to continue in employment. In the context of service industry that we are a part of, we often think about disabled people mainly as our customers/end-users but we have to think of colleagues with such conditions too, facing barriers constantly.

The topic of accessibility is a complex one which is dependent on perceptions of individuals as well as the bigger society, about the idea of disability. It will take a lot of determination to support this topic and we have a long way to go. But this journey can be easier if each one of us stand firmly to make sure accessibility is given its due consideration. Let us make way for accessibility in our lives, as individuals and as professionals, in the world around us.

What are your thoughts? Leave a reply below or contact me by email.