If banking were more Open Source, we would need less Wikileaks

Banks are important. The world economic crisis is due for a good part to insufficient transparency in banks. Wikileaks next document drop may target banks. And a small group of activists is trying to solve those bank problems in a (Open Source) way that may make Wikileaks less necessary.

I already wrote about real openness at the last Open World Forum, but during that conference I also met Simon Redfern of the Open Bank Project (OBP). We only had a few minutes, so Simon could give me only an extra-short explanation, but it was enough to let me eager to know more.

The Open Bank Project develops Open Source Software called the OBP API (Application Programming Interface). In general, an API is a piece of software and/or a set of rules that many independent programmers can embed into their own software programs to make them talk to each other. “Open Source” means that the software is freely usable, auditable and reusable by everybody, so it can’t play tricks. The OBP API “exposes banking transactions to larger audiences and to software applications”. In normal human language, this means something incredibly powerful: the holder of a bank account managed with OBP-compatible software will be able (if he or she decides so, of course) to let everybody, or just some selected individuals, see some transactions on that bank account automatically, in real time from the Internet.

Yes, you read that right. OBP is a technology that will allow voters to say to their candidates “since you put transparency in your program, if you want my vote, please set up your account so I always know by email how much money you get and from who”. Interesting, isn’t it?

I asked Simon to explain how OBP was born. This is his answer:

Simon Redfern: About 5 years ago I started hearing and thinking (more) about corruption. I can’t remember exactly what made me conceive of it - and it wasn’t a formal process - but at some point I suddenly had the idea of a new type of bank where all the accounts were open for the public to see. This was the original idea and since then it has matured.

At first I thought I should keep the idea secret and think up some kind of business plan to take advantage of the concept so I didn’t talk to many people about it. However, the people I did speak to responded energetically - and a good friend of mine from the UK suggested a “protocol” so that the idea could be applied to other banks too.

Then in 2008, while working in Athens, I noticed lots of construction sites with European Union (EU) boards proclaiming “Funded by the EU”. When I mentioned this enthusiastically to somebody she said: “Yes but Simon, there’s so much corruption here!”. So, this got me thinking more about realising the project - and then of course, two years later, Greece collapsed.

By 2010, I had also come to know APIs better. My company TESOBE had built them for our internal projects musicpictures.com and eviscape.com; besides, it was easy for me to see that if Web services such as Flickr and Twitter have grown so well it is also because of APIs. The reasons is that APIs massively extend the IT team of a company, because they let external developers use the companies data and services to build innovative applications creatively and independently.

At the same time, I have been understanding more about the silent revolution that is “Open Source” and I realised that the issues concerned (public money, corruption etc) are too important and require too wide an adoption to not involve the Open Source community.

Corruption was the catalyst for the project - but the Open Bank Project is definitely also about better, simpler, cooler banking, business and financial apps and a more open philosophy towards software development and business too.

Marco: I wish all success to Simon and OBP! Personally, I am not sure if society at large is mentally ready for opening all bank accounts everywhere. But it sure would be nice if adoption of OBP-compliant accounts became mandatory for all Public Administrations, their suppliers and for all political parties.