From master masons to information architects: how standards can transform reporting

Superb speech by Gareth Ramsay of Bank of England. He points how open standards help whether one looks at designing cathedrals or data systems:

 I want to begin by talking about cathedrals.

The great cathedrals of Europe were built in the Middle Ages by teams of skilled stone masons.

To get the dimensions of the building right, it is said that each team would use measures based around the body of the master mason: his foot, his stride, his arm, and so on. And so a local standard was born.

Those standards were designed with one specific use in mind – the construction of that cathedral. And very useful they were, too. But they were closed systems – the foot and the yard used to build one cathedral were different from those used to build another. And this was not just an English peculiarity: across the channel, a foot length in Strasbourg was 295 mm, a foot in Paris was 325 mm, but a foot in Bordeaux was a relative whopper at 344 mm.

Of course people came to understand the great benefits of enforcing universal, common standards. In part for maintaining the cathedrals themselves, so that new, replacement stones could be sourced that would fit snugly between their neighbours. But the benefits of universal measurement standards could be applied a long way beyond the niche discipline of cathedral building.

Now some of you may think that today’s financial system is not perfectly comparable to the glorious gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

But like those cathedrals, many of the data systems underpinning today’s financial firms and markets were built with narrow reference to their own needs, by their own master masons – their CIOs and systems architects. They too were closed systems. Each needed to be able to record, track and manipulate its data. Its data points needed to fit snugly alongside each other. But the design of each system often paid little attention – understandably – to any broader public good. In this speech, I want to talk about whether there are wider public benefits that might flow from standardising these data labels, and set out a way forward to reap those benefits collectively.

So let me turn from mediaeval architecture to data.


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