The Data Dive

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Finance, Health and the Watercooler

Have you ever found some of the most confounding questions and off the wall answers come to you at the water cooler?

I had been reading an article in the paper on the rising cost of running the UK’s primary health care provider the national-health-service (NHS).

The NHS was founded by the then Labor Government after World War II, in 1948.

It is an institution that has weathered many storms during its history and continues to be reported on. Quite frankly the issues around Obamacare pale into comparison when considering how to keep this British National Institution running well into the 21st century.

Now I must say, I am a technology entrepreneur, not a doctor. I am a lay person, who has been listening to the debate since he was a child.

The NHS is an incredibly large organisation. It serves as the primary health care provider for the majority of the population of the United Kingdom. And it serves the needs of the individual from birth to death.

The information generated by this institution is staggering. We talk about Big Data. Well, around the NHS we are talking about Big Data in mega supersize quantities by the volume, variety, velocity and volatility.

To give some context to healthcare big data.

When we talk about volume we imagine health care records for every patient and kept updated throughout that patient’s live. We can also mean all the documents, invoices generated by a hospital or other healthcare centers. Truly the list is endless.

So we now have our second term, variety. We have a wide range of data within our system. We never know just what we may need, so for safety’s sake we store a wide a variety as possible.

The third term is velocity.  Information is coming to us from doctors, nurses, suppliers, medical instruments – once more it’s endless and it’s coming to us in varying degrees of speed.

For example a patient’s bi annual checkup means two updates to their healthcare record.

If we look at hospital purchase ledger that could be daily. If we look at a hospital patient, their notes could be updated  hourly. If a patient was in intensive care then we could be looking at data coming to us in real-time, which would mean high velocity.

The last is volatility – this is where we track decisions that have been made. Maybe a different course of treatment was taken after a second opinion.

So that’s the potential nature of health care big data,  but what does it mean to the NHS?

The critical areas of concern, for the NHS is the delivery, effectiveness and cost of health care. In my humble opinion an effective big data initiative could help greatly in meeting these areas of concern.

Now I am an engineer not a doctor, but even I can see that it’s all about the patient.

To be in the data context, it’s all centered about the patient’s health care record. At the inception of the NHS this would have been on paper by now though and it’s been 66 years, this should be electronic.

However even better be health care record in a format that would facilitate exchange between systems. Whether such a health care record or format exists is not in the scope of this blog.

Here we are in the art of the possible…

Just as we can have exchange of financial information between financial IT systems (we call it XBRL) we also have a counterpart in health care called HL7 – CDA (Health Level 7 – Clinical Document Architecture).

HL7 – CDA, like XBRL, is based on eXtensible Markup Language (XML).

The goal of CDA is to specify syntax and supply framework for the full semantics of a clinical document. It defines a clinical document as having the following six characteristics:

  • Persistence
  • Stewardship
  • Potential for authentication
  • Context
  • Wholeness
  • Human readability

Now let’s play a game of what if?

What if we could use HL7-CDA as a means to encompass the medical record of a patient?

What if we could map the records of medical care provided to the patient, outcome of that care and cost of care?

What if we could report on health care cost using XBRL and link this to the HL7-CDA document?

Well I suppose we could if we used XML databases, but what would be the point?

Maybe with a synthesis of different XML datasets, taxonomies, predictive analytics and visualization we could have a go at answering these questions:

  •  How did the hospital meet the care requirements for the patient?
  • What costs were incurred by the hospital?
  • What were the care outcomes?
  • Where is the cost efficiency for the hospital, if any?
  • What drugs/treatments were used?
  • What was the cost in developing those drugs/treatments?

Now for countries without a state funded health service we could also be asking -

  • What is the variation in health care insurance premiums?
  • Was the patient covered adequately by their health insurance?

Clearly a lot of questions and one to be answered by a powerful health analytics system with a serious architecture!

Watch this space…

Thank you for reading.

Data interoperability

Data is fragile. Entering it is labor intensive, checking for quality is hard, reusing it is even harder. Take the example of something as simple as tracking progress of construction projects. Fairly simple forms with information fields such as project beginning date, estimated end date, percentage conclusion, resource allocation, funding status etc. But in reality, the process is heavily manual. Forms are often hand written taking days to process since the data needs to be  re-entered, often manually again, in electronic format. The form then gets disseminated and the necessary action, such as release of funds for the next stage of the project, can finally take place. Some of these large projects, although primarily owned by a contractor, are eventually carried out by hundreds of sub-contractors. Once a subcontractor fails to deliver on deadline, this delay ripples through an entire Eco-system and often puts an overall project in jeopardy .

Now imagine that the data were tagged during submission using a technology like XBRL (eXtensibe Business Reporting Language). Everyone in the value chain, from the sub-contractors who are submitting the data and tracking their own progress, the contractors who own the overall project, the federal agencies who often fund these projects and the Banks who provide Bonds, can read and consume this data within minutes.  Decisions are taken in minutes too. This can result is millions of dollars of savings for all involved, not to mention efficiency and transparency of the status of the projects.

The first step towards this was taken today by a consortium of companies under the leadership of USC Chico and technical backing from Apurba by proposing an XBRL-CET (Construction-Energy-Transportation) taxonomy.

The Perfect System

I am continuing the Tron:Legacy metaphor.

In this movie the arch bad guy, an Artificial Intelligence (A.I), horribly misinterprets the requirements of his maker.

His maker said, “Go forth and build me the perfect system.  BTW could you also manage all the other AI’s too while you are at it. I am going away to contemplate my navel”.

The bad guy did not start out as bad. He had the best of intentions. In his mind the perfect system was efficient and orderly. He manifested his interpretation of his maker’s will precisely but it was at the expense of creativity and openness.

In the end there was a revolt and the bad guy was overthrown.

I have been thinking, “What lessons can we learn for our world?”

Apart from that we should be careful about our requirements, pick a decent project management team and for goodness sake monitor project progress, what else?

It’s an ever changing world.

The systems we build need to adapt. Now of course there is the factor of obsolescence in any technology we use. That’s life!

However we can allow for this in our Enterprise Architecture.

So how have we addressed this at Apurba?

At Apurba we work with data, lots of data, from the big to the small and almost anywhere in between. We work in financials and so we spend a lot of time with eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL).

We work in construction, energy and transport (more XBRL).

We work in health care and HL7 & CDA.

We work with standard XML, RDBMS and other disparate sources of data.

It could make us quite desperate, but it doesn’t, because we have a dynamic system architecture. This week we talked about this architecture in BigDataScience, Stanford.

Realized by allowing new components to be added and old ones removed dynamically.

This principle  is in our flagship Lyticas family of analytics products.

Our clients can mix and match the services they need to meet their data analytics goals.

This can be an evolving processing and our clients don’t need to build their analytics capability with just Apurba products alone, our architecture allows products from other vendors to be added too.

So how do we do this specifically?

To get a bit more technical, we separate our data driven and event driven components. We then set up a mechanism for communication between components / services in our architecture.

The other principle we live by is to use the appropriate methodology for the scale of systems we have been entrusted to build.

There is no point going through an intense Enterprise Architecture methodology for developing a single web service.

We have Agile for the small, however it does help us to know the Enterprise Architecture landscape of our client’s environment to craft the most optimal solution.

Now I am going to stop here before I get too heavy. From my blogs you may gather I like methodology. I like it a lot. I like to learn from the experiences of others as well as my own screw ups & successes. However it must all be used in the right context and at the right time.

So what’s the thinking?

To seek perfect systems where every requirement is met perfectly for all time is folly.

To ensure our solutions can cope with change is smart.

To reach the two, one needs to accept that things will change and build the architecture to cope.

Thanks for reading.

Compliance and analytics – Two sides of the same coin

Thanks to US SEC, we now have tagged financial data freely available. What are we doing with it? Imagine this – someone has acquired the data (thanks to an accounting system), someone has prepared the data (courtesy of CFOs and their teams) and someone has labeled the data (this time thanks goes to the person who did the XBRL tagging), someone made sure the labels are correct (the ever suffering auditors get the credit this time) and finally someone made sure all this was done according to some process someone has established and monitored (this time our thanks goes to the SEC EDGAR validation system).  Wow! All we now have to do is to figure out what model to use and what colors to apply in the graphs – we have analytics and visualization!

Data visualization – Pulling data from various data files from SEC filing

This all sounds too simplistic, right? That is because the picture I just painted is just that.

There are tons of issues that are hidden in this simple process. The devil is always in the details. What is the quality of this tagging? How much details are in the financial tables versus hidden in the notes Sections? How granular is this information? Is the information sufficiently functionally related so that a complete picture can be drawn? Is it possible to query the model built based on this data? Does the model give us enough data points to forecast anything reliably? How much data is really tagged? How much of this tagging is consistent across multiple quarters? How consistent are different companies in tagging the same concept with the same element? How much of the data is using extended customized tagging? All of these are valid questions and raises a lot of very legitimate issues.

But what is really the primary question we should ask? To me, that question is:

“Does this tagged data help build better analytics than what we could before there was no tagged data available?”

A company snapshot

As someone who has been working on data analytics for quite a number of years, I can safely say that the answer is an emphatic YES!  Yes, there are problems. Yes, it is not highly reliable or accurate or sometimes even usable, but it is better than what we could have done previously. We now have tools that can build quick models, connect relevant data, compare performances and even make predictions. And this trend has not been completely missed either. Leena Roselli, Senior Research Manager at  Financial Executives Research Foundation, Inc. (FERF) recently authored a report titled “Data Mining with XBRL and Other Sources” and explored some solutions that are just hitting the market including I-Metrix (RR Donnelly), Ask 9W (9W Search) and Lyticas (Apurba). While we are still pioneering in the financial analytics and visualization space using XBRL as the primary source of data, the initial solutions are quite promising.

The bottom line is that this mandate has given us a golden opportunity to move from data mandate to data consumption, from the avoidance of punishment to generating deeper Business Intelligence. Join us in that voyage!


Data Ocean

The other day I was watching Tron: Legacy and there was one point where our hero’s were flying over a vast ocean of data chased by the bad guys. The bad guys were trying to shoot them out of the sky or force them to drown in the deep ocean of seemingly random data before our hero’s can get to the island of insight and get the hell out of dodge.

Quite a big data problem our hero’s have. So how did they cope. Well they had an aircraft (system) with the ability to fly fast and to allow them to shoot back (efficient architecture). Now the enemy aircraft were coming at them in volume, velocity and variety.

Okay for those of you who,watched the movie I guess I am taking this metaphor way too far. But the upshot is to not drown in this sea of data one must look at ones own enterprise architectures whether it’s data, application or I.T.

Anyway more later. Gotta get on my lightcycle and get to work. Even as CTO I can still get derezzed

XBRL Supporting Monitoring and Transparency

Questions, Questions Questions!

Can XBRL support greater effectiveness in monitoring and transparency of our financial institutions and multi-nationals?

Let’s indulge in a bit of what if. If Lehman brothers published in financial statements in XBRL, could their collapse be avoided? Would scrutiny from multiple quarters made any difference?

 Could an ever increasing position in CDO (Collateralised Debt Obligations) created from sub prime mortgages been identified as a risk if RBS financial statements were in XBRL. On there own probably not, but cross referencing these figures against other data? Who knows? Prescience is for mystics. Financial professionals have analysis and statistics; the quality of both depends upon levels of transparency/availability of information.

Why do we need greater transparency?

Greater Transparency either mandatory or voluntary in order gain trust is something that we can expect from publicly listed companies.

Especially in light of recent economic conditions with financial institutions facing even greater scrutiny.

A key feature of XBRL as promoted by the IFRS, “to standardize financial reporting to promote transparency.”

The United States (SEC) have not only made it mandatory for publicly listed companies to submit financial statements in XBRL, but have made them public.

Allowing investors, researchers and analysts the opportunity to assess the performance of these companies using an IT system that can analyze the data will be creating growth in financial analysis software applications that support XBRL.

The question is how many other regulators in other countries will follow the United States SEC’s lead in light of benefits of greater transparency?

But what about companies? What is the uptake of companies releasing financial information in XBRL to the general public? Companies such as Goldman Sachs and Apple have done just that.

Once again, will the demand of greater transparency from investors drive demand?

What will be the role big data analytics play in a potential revolution?

Time will tell…

XBRL – Global Financial Village

In my last blog I actually mentioned that XBRL can be cool. I wrote that while having my Sunday morning cappuccino, brought from an absolutely charming village in Hampshire called Hartney Wintney.

Also to be truly powerful XBRL needs to have a global market. Now the next few paragraphs are going to sound a bit heavy. But we are now into some serious territory.

On this international stage, enters the regulators, who comes as an unlikely market maker…

In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission, has mandated that SEC listed companies must file quarterly and yearly statements in XBRL. This information is made public by the SEC for the purposes of transparency. One of the effects being that private and institutional investors may analyze the information being released.

This has caused a growth in an IT sectorx offering services to companies who need to submit accounts in XBRL.

In the United Kingdom, HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) have required all UK companies to submit their Corporation Tax returns for tax year ending in April 2010 by April 2011 using iXBRL, a simplified variant of XBRL.

This is a major investment for HMRC with the expected return on investment being massive departmental savings arising from reduction in manual processing of CT returns, increased efficiency in identifying risk, improving quality of submitted turns and above all reducing the tax gap between expected and actual revenue.

So in terms of the UK how has this affected the marketplace? It is now mandatory for all UK companies to deliver their returns in iXBRL.

As a consequence vendors of accounting software now have to handle iXBRL. Accounting firms great and small have to ensure they can support iXBRL filing of Corporation Tax returns on behalf of their clients, UK companies.

So what about the rest of the world?

The IFRS has focused on a global outreach for XBRL; in fact XBRL has also been adopted by Regulatory Bodies around the world, these include:

  • European Banking Authority
  • European Insurance Authority
  • China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)
  • Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) – India

A vast data ocean of financial information in XBRL presents us with some incredible opportunities. This is speculation on my part, but supposing if performance of financial instruments start getting reported in XBRL as well as financial statements? Just with financial statements we have huge volumes of data accumulating. Now with other financial events being reported, our huge volume starts becoming big data.

That would represent the next big challenge (and the opportunity). How many XBRL companies are really ready to deal with financial big data?

Now trying not to sound like an annoying smarty pants, know-it-all!

Apurba Technologies Lyticas Analytics Platform (LytAP), is built upon Hadoop, the bedrock of Big Data technologies.

Because we laugh in the face of danger! Bring it on Big Data Moby Dick! Captain A-hab is awaiting. Actually no, at Apurba Technologies. We don’t go around spearing whales.

More like we are the kind of folks that would rescue them in our very own Klingon Bird of Prey and release them in San Francisco Bay.

Now I know I am sounding ridiculous. However I do believe we can’t meet new challenges with relying on the solutions of yesteryear. The global use of XBRL and the inter-connectivity of information systems means that we have to take an imaginative, off the wall approach.

Thanks again for reading my ramblings…

XBRL – An Opportunity

I kind of feel that my last blog may have given the impression that I am slightly bitter and twisted about XBRL.

That it’s a chore added to the humble accountant in order for the tax man to get more money from us hard working folks.

Well it doesn’t have to be hard…

It can actually be fun! Yes really! An opportunity!

Through the use of XBRL we can validate our financial reports more effectively than before.  Also there are plenty of commercial off the shelf (COTS) products that give a familiar user experience to the accountant or other finance professional without them even knowing what’s being generated is XBRL.

Now here comes the cool part…

Are you ready?

If we start having more and more folks submitting financial data in a common reporting standard then we have the potential of accumulating a treasure trove of historical financial data that can be analyzed in a manner never done before.

But what good will that do?

We could identify financial risk like never before, help decide which companies to invest in, which sectors are doing well and which ones aren’t. We, as a group of shareholders, can look at the companies we are investing in like never before.

But only if the XBRL standard is mandatory, ordinary folk can get at the data and we have tools that can do the job.

The U.S, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have paved the way by making the filing of financial statements mandatory by SEC listed companies. They have also made them public. This means an ever increasing treasure trove of financial data, ready to be mined.

And already there are companies with the tools to leverage this data. My own company Apurba’s Lyticas Product Suite allows someone to analyze and benchmark performance of SEC listed companies.  Our software can extract Key Performance Indicators from those financial statements generated in XBRL.

We are not the only company with products and services out there that can do what I have mentioned. Thank goodness.

From a heady mix of diversity, competition and partnerships the use of XBRL can greatly benefit the global financial industry. This is just the beginning!

XBRL and my accountant

It’s the first week of January. Like many people in the United Kingdom I have my tax return to submit by the end of the month. Such an odious chore! And so I have passed this on to my accountant.

These days giving her the excel spreadsheets is only part of the story. She then has to submit the data electronically and in a particular format. That format is eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL).

To her it seems like an added administrative overhead. It’s the last thing she needs when she has a lot of them to do. Why couldn’t they just stick with the old way of doing things?

Yes, it’s frustrating when dealing with such a significant change. A change that affects every business in the United Kingdom. EVERY BUSINESS! From the small to the huge.

From the Mum and Dad sandwich van to the hi-tech entrepreneur. Everybody!! The accountants and specialists are busy again.

Before I go and give my two pennies worth let me back up a little and give a quick account of what I think XBRL is. If you want accuracy go read Wiki!

XBRL is a global standard for the exchange of business information between IT systems.

The concept behind XBRL was championed by Charlie Hoffman. His concept was that business information could be processed and analyzed far more readily by a software application if it were created as tagged text. But simple text files are not enough, what was required was an international standard for this tagging. An international standard that would facilitate the exchange of financial information between financial IT systems across the globe.

This international standard became realized as XBRL, formulated by extending an existing, proven technology XML (Extensible Markup Language) used extensively in the world of Software for exchange of generic data between IT systems.

So what has that got to do with UK companies? The UK tax authority have mandated that all UK companies should use it to improve the efficiency for assessment of their accounts and to validate that they are paying the correct amount of tax.

Through XBRL crunching IT systems, the UK tax authority plan to improve the efficiency of tax collecting. These systems will help them ensure that the right amount of tax is being paid. Making it more efficient and error free process for all tax payers, reduce administrative costs and above all allow them to target those companies they feel that are not paying their fair share.

Rather ambitious!

However these improvements mean more money can be spent on schools, hospitals, roads, all that other good stuff – all through getting more tax revenue and reducing administration costs.

However that still leaves my accountant having to cope with XBRL. I wish her good luck!

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