Consumer affairs minister Jo Swinson last week threatened legislation by September 2014 unless there is more progress from brands in releasing data. The announcement, following a consultation over the summer, has almost been treated as a new launch by much of the press, which shows just how little has been achieved since Midata’s actual launch a year ago. Scottish Power and Lloyds Banking Group are among the few companies to have acted already, but around 20 brands are signed up as participants, including British Gas, Mastercard and Moneysupermarket.com.
The threats of legislation sound hollow, however. They really only amount to mumbling meekly, “By the way, we’re still here”. Instead, Midata should be looking for practical steps forward through collaboration between brands and technology.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the formal body of Tech City, now run by former Facebook executive Joanna Shields, that Midata engages, or merely a handful of its constituent start-up companies. What’s important is that fresh ideas are needed for demonstrating how releasing data benefits consumers.
Midata’s aim has always been to put consumers in control, but in reality most people can’t even control an Excel spreadsheet, so it’s pointless just handing them raw data files and expecting something to happen. What they really need is to be presented with out-of-the-box applications that do something useful. An example I’ve used before in this column is Billmonitor, which allows mobile phone users to compare any tariff to their actual phone use.
That website has been around since long before Midata began. But if there were a few more working examples coming out of the scheme that were shown to benefit both brands and consumers, the companies that have pledged to release data might actually see a reason to start doing it. Midata and Tech City should be encouraging new ideas – for example by offering funding to the best proposals for apps that consumers could use to get better deals out of the data held on them by supermarkets, utilities companies, telecoms firms and others.
At the very least the two bodies should start facilitating co-operation between digital developers and the big corporations that hold the data. That way brands might start to see mutual benefit in offering consumers a way to understand the service they’re getting, and how they could get more value out of it.
At the moment, both Midata and Tech City both lack focus. The former appears to be based on sound principles but with little thought given to practicality; the latter draws more attention for the big-name foreign signings going in – Google, Amazon, Shields herself – than the businesses coming out. It’s time they both realised they could give each other a reason to exist.