Gareth Ramsay: From master masons to information architects - how standards can transform reporting (and bring benefits well beyond it)

Speech by Mr Gareth Ramsay, Executive Director for Data and Analytics & Chief Data Officer of the Bank of England, at a webinar hosted by The EDM Council, 14 April 2021.

The views expressed in this speech are those of the speaker and not the view of the BIS.

Central bank speech  | 
21 April 2021

Hello all – it's a great pleasure to be speaking to you. I'd like to thank John Bottega and the EDM Council for virtually hosting us today.

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.