Project Mercury moves data from the abstract to tangible reality

Within its first week Deedit recorded about 200 good deeds by more than 70 deeders. Picture: Contributed
Within its first week Deedit recorded about 200 good deeds by more than 70 deeders. Picture: Contributed
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It’s a fluorescent installation outside the Assembly Rooms on George Street that manages to stand out even among the surrounding colourful hive of festival activity.

The Design Informatics Pavilion houses Data Pipe Dreams: Glimpse of a Near Future, which is open until 25 August, and showcases the fruits of a partnership between the University of Edinburgh and Tesco Bank.

The two have teamed up for Project Mercury, a collaboration that has been running for the last year between the Centre of Design Informatics and the Edinburgh-based lender, looking to explore fintech, develop talent, and foster innovation and creative thinking.

The results include Deedit, which encourages locals and visitors to carry out small acts of kindness, such as buying a sandwich for a stranger supporting the work of Social Bite. Once these are completed, users are encouraged to record their activity online, sharing a photo of their deed or a selfie. They are then shown how they have helped foster bigger, positive social change.

Also on display is Lens, a game that highlights how their personal data – such as a Facebook profile – might affect people’s chances during a fictional job application.

And Tess gives visitors the opportunity to see what could happen if financial service organisations used artificial intelligence and machine learning to help improve customers’ financial wellbeing. Lighting effects are used to indicate the health of a customer’s spending habits.Tesco Bank digital director Grant Bourbousson told The Scotsman that the tie-up came about after he and Chris Speed, director of the university’s Centre for Design Informatics, looked at how to unite organisations to collaborate in the emerging technologies space.

The centre, which aims for Scotland to be a world leader in designing with data, has established relationships with agencies and companies including Oxfam, Google, NCR, Microsoft, Royal Bank of Scotland, GCHQ, and the NHS, having also worked with the likes of the Scottish Government, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh City Council and Lothian Buses.

Bourbousson explains that there was a focus on how to create the conditions for bank staff, students and academics, “to come together to achieve some sort of outcome, particularly around data and emerging technologies, which is an area of particular importance for Chris but equally for us a primarily digital organisation’.

The bank, where Gerry Mallon has taken the chief executive reins from Benny Higgins, has 5.6 million customer accounts.

Bourbousson adds that all three projects emerging under Project Mercury involve “taking something consumers really struggle with - data, [which] has had a pretty bad rap in the last few months - and express that insight in a way that’s meaningful’. He adds: “How do you make things that on the surface feel relatively uninteresting actually much more compelling through really quite unique moments of experience? You only get that through fantastic design, and you only get fantastic design by understanding the data that drives behaviour, so the beauty of this whole programme is bringing all the parts of that puzzle together.”

Looking at Tess specifically, he said it’s a great example of “how you can take artificial intelligence and bring some humanity into what is a fairly bland interaction at the moment, by bringing emotion into the interaction around how you make decisions”. And he said the lender is “now starting to contribute to Edinburgh’s aspirations to be a real centre for fintech design and its aspirations at a global level in that respect - so this is a little part of supporting that aspiration”.

It comes after Prime Minister Theresa May recently confirmed the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal, including hundreds of millions in technology and innovation investment, while FinTech Scotland wants Scotland to become a top-five global fintech centre by 2020.

Looking towards the end of August and assessing Deedit’s performance then, Bourbousson said there will an look at whether to build the pilot scheme out further under its current guise “or are the true learnings that you can use a digital platform to engage customers around social need?”.

He says that overall, the Project Mercury programme “is hopefully something the start of something that we’ll do on a larger scale”

It is also credited with helping boost Tesco Bank staff’s digital skills and providing practical experience in a real-life business environment for Centre for Design Informatics students. Speed said: “Co-designing imaginative, human-centred experiences with the financial sector here in Edinburgh demonstrates that the city is becoming a world leader in fintech design.”