Open data expert Emer Coleman has joined the Co-op Group as technology engagement advisor, where she will focus on ensuring that the on-going digital transformation strategy of the business helps the wider community.
Her experience spans government, the arts and journalism. She was deputy director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office, and is chair of the Open Data Governance Board Ireland, which advises the Irish government on open data initiatives. As an independent consultant, she founded Disruption Ltd, a digital and technology consultancy.
Co-op News caught up with her to find out more about her role at the Co-op and her view on ethical boundaries in the digital world…
What made you leave London for Manchester and the Co-op?
I worked for Mike Bracken, now the Group’s the Co-op’s chief digital officer, in Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office and was excited about what his move meant for the Co-op.
I was also excited about the contribution other members of his team would be making. For the past year I’ve been lecturing and talking about what I call Techno Ethics – how we need to make sure that the benefits of the digital economy are more evenly distributed so that we all benefit from this new economy. It seemed to me that this was a very good fit with the values of the Co-op and a new area of exploration that few other organisations are really thinking about. So the prospect of working with a great team on stuff that matters was enough to convince me that Manchester is the place to be.
How is the Co-op digital team structured, and how will your role slot into this?
We are building multi disciplinary teams who are focused relentlessly on user needs. You can read more about that here. I’ll also be working with the team on engaging with the technology community more broadly in Manchester.
You are looking to create a shared working environment for technology start-ups in the region. How will this work?
Parts of the CoopDigital team will be moving into a building in the NOMA estate and we’ll be using the top two floors. We are hoping other technology firms will co-locate with us. These might be suppliers in our ecosystem or companies who feel that what they are doing is a good fit with CoopDigital.
You were part of the team that built Transport API, the only single source of public transport data in the UK. Is real time data something the Co-op is looking at? How will this tie into retail?
In relation to data I think we need to get the first principles right. We know that businesses like Google, Apple and Facebook control our access to large amounts of data.
This means a lot of convenience but there are questions that people are asking. They are wondering what data companies have and what they are doing with it. I think we’ve reached a tipping point and people feel that they have shared too much with too little in return.
So firstly we need to make sure that our members and customers trust us with their data. If they do this then we can start to build convenient and compelling services for them when we use that data for good. So that’s the first part bringing our customers and members on that journey of trust and seeing where that leads us.
It’s too early to say how exactly this will tie into retail but we’ll be transparent along the way sharing what we are doing. You can read about our experiment called Paperfree on the CoopDigital blog.
What are the complexities that come with digital platforms?
The more data you collect the better you can make the experience for customers. But sometimes data is collected regardless of whether there is a known use for it. And that’s because the technology is emergent. You collect the data and then see opportunities that you could never have predicted. So the complexities are around balancing data collection and privacy and trust.
You also had to address the fact that not all users will be comfortable with digital and therefore you need to consider assisted digital and accessibility as part of your offer.
Should retailers unify their online and offline data collection (as retail analysts are predicting)?
That’s a sensible approach – we can see different behaviours happening in bricks and mortar stores than we do online. We need to look at people in a holistic way and examine their customer journeys in the real world as well as online.
We see customers more and more wary of sharing data. Is there a role for the Co-op to play in this process by giving customers more control over the data they share?
Yes and that’s something Mike Bracken was crystal clear about in his speech at the Co-op’s AGM.
He said: “We’re committing to a data relationship that’s unambiguously transparent…Frankly we shouldn’t have much choice – you’re our owners. You will be in control of the data we hold on you.”
Data should be used to benefit the data owners – users – and that includes looking at ways this data can be monetised for the benefit of the user, not just organisations. I like the approach that Jaron Lanier takes in his book Who Owns the Future when he talks about micro-licensing content back to creators. So very exciting times ahead.
In a multichannel world, will retailers have to pay more attention to preventing fraud?
Absolutely, cyber crime and fraud should be squarely at the top of everyone’s agenda. People are generally not as up to speed on this as they should be.
What do you think will be the biggest digital trends for retailers over the coming years?
Personally, I see the rise of robotics and automation as both a challenge and a benefit but it’s how we manage this for society that matters. This is true across huge sectors – not just retail but everywhere from fast food companies to managed services firms. The implications of this for the job market are clear. We need therefore to balance the good things that technology brings like efficiencies with the implications for the workforce. As I say, this is true whether you are a law firm, accountancy firm or retailer. But it’s not all doom and gloom – some analysts predict that we as humans will always find creative ways to create new work.
I think other trends will be continued personalisation in services and the growth in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (AR). VR in particular I think will form an expected part of customer journey. If I want to design my kitchen I really want to be able to experience that virtually in an immersive environment. We already know this is happening in fashion so VR and AR will be huge.
Which new technologies do you get most excited about?
I don’t really get excited about apps – when I got my first iPhone back in the day I had loads of apps and over time you realise very few are actually truly useful on a daily basis and many are so short-lived. I’m more interested in platforms, digital infrastructure that enables new and sustainable digital businesses to emerge. So I’m really interested in blockchain. To think that such a game changer was created by an anonymous individual who does not even benefit financially speaks to me about the wonder of the internet and the generosity of spirit that still exists.
In this article
- deputy director for digital engagement
- Emer Coleman
- Ernst & Young UK
- Free culture movement
- Government Digital Services
- independent digital consultant
- Jaron Lanier
- Mike Bracken
- Open Data
- Open Data Governance Board Ireland
- Retail innovation
- The Co-operative Group
- United Kingdom
- Top Stories