Experian is a FTSE 100 business with a market capitalisation of over £22 billion and a history it can trace back to 1968. It offers consumer and business services and is a familiar partner to many, if not most, in the data industry.
So it may seem surprising that a company which trades in data only set up a central data office relatively recently. Jonathan Westley, chief data officer, talked to DataIQ about his role and why data as an internal area of focus has moved to the foreground, not least in the wake of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “We recognised a need to be more transparent,” said Westley. “We recognised that consumers needed to understand what data we collect on them and how it is being used.”
The creation of a central data office and his appointment followed considerable internal debate. “What is a central data office and what goes into it? You could say it is the whole of Experian UK,” recalled Westley. “But it is not about the products we offer, it is about creating a discipline that looks after things like data quality and the raw data we source.”
While GDPR was an element in the decision to appoint a CDO, it was not the decisive factor because Experian was already focused on compliance as a regulated business. With a vision to be the UK’s number one source for consumer data, it is essential that clients who rely on its data sets, such as major utilities, are reassured records have been collected and aggregated to the right standard and with all appropriate permissions.
“We need as a sector to be able to articulate what data enables.”
But Westley noted that it is not just the regulators that it has to satisfy about its governance. “The alarmist nature of some mainstream media is not helping to reassure companies about the scale and value they can get from data. That also puts consumers in a difficult position. We need as a sector to be able to articulate a story line of what data enables,” he said.
“Data is good at breaking down class barriers,” Westley argued, “because it enables access to products and services for people who might otherwise not benefit.” He pointed to Experian’s Thin File as an example of this and also of how the company continues to innovate. Many people living in rental property do not appear on conventional data sets and therefore have poor credit files, so may be denied financial products despite being a good risk.
“If we can fill that gap, companies can offer them credit products and services, all because of how we bring that information together,” he said. In the evolving financial services market, this is important because consumers no longer just rely on one of the big banks, but increasingly turn to new entrants and disruptor brands. Innovation as well as access is being supported by this data focus on previously neglected groups in the UK population.
The same issue also applies to people who do not have a full digital footprint - an increasingly important dimension in how risk is assessed - who are as likely to be senior citizens as they are recent arrivals into the UK. Unless lenders can asses their reliability and financial status, they are not able to make loans or offer lines of credit.
Looking inside the business, Westley identified the same issues that CDOs in other types of organisation will recognise. “We have data silos which we are trying to demolish. If we can join up our data assets, we will be better able to innovate far more. How do we do that and still apply the right governance when we are consolidating data? Can we use each piece of data for specific purposes? We need that oversight and data lineage.”
“We have to be careful that the fear factor doesn’t crowd out the good things.”
Experian sees itself as just at the beginning of its journey into the emerging future for data and how it is managed for value and derisked for clients. That also applies to controlling the potential for harm which data breaches, for example, can case for consumers. “We have to be very protective because that can damage people,” he said.
If the big data revolution that started in 2011-12 seemed to expand the data resources available to companies significantly, Westley argued that we have barely seen what is going to be created in the coming era of connected vehicles, health monitors, smart cities and all the rest of the internet of things.
As CDO, Westley sees his role as helping to ensure this opportunity is appropriately exploited. “We have to be careful that the fear factor doesn’t crowd out the good things that are possible,” he said. “That is why we are focusing on data ethics as digital services expand to avoid people being excluded.”
On the other side of the data-value exchange, he notes that, “consumers are starting to think about how to extract value from data and their digital selves. Generation Z gets it - it is the older generation who are at risk because their data files are getting thin as they become less reliant on credit and digital services. Where will that lead us?”
For now, Experian thinks it has part of the answer through a focus on data governance as an enabler of innovation. Creating a central data office under a CDO is an important step in its evolution. For Westley, it is about creating the foundations for the next 50 years for the business.
Jonathan Westley is a member of the 2019 edition of the DataIQ 100