Alex's Agenda

Let hackers break the banks to fix our finances

By Alex Wood 28 January 2016

When hackers are let loose on a bank, beautiful things happen.

Welcome to Alex’s Agenda, the new weekly column from the front-lines of the future by The Memo’s Editor in Chief, Alex Wood.

Banks and hackers aren’t usually bedfellows. But last weekend a group of hungry hackers broke the rules when up-and-coming challenger bank Mondo welcomed them into their offices for a weekend of unadulterated coding.

There’s been a lot of buzz around around new banks in Britain, with 5 new ones slated for launch in the next 18 months. Each of them have different their unique selling points, but their ambitions to build in new technologies unite them, and have caught the interest of developers and consumers alike.

The idea of banks opening their doors to developers isn’t new. As I wrote last summer, Natwest are leading the charge, inviting new companies to come in and build new ideas, but it isn’t easy, especially when you’re working with systems that were designed for decades old systems.

As Mondo co-founder Tom Blomfield told me, hosting a hackathon isn’t just a shortcut to hiring new talent or poaching innovative ideas. Its about Mondo being an open platform, one that welcomes people to build ideas and even money-making businesses on top of the bank they’re building.

The Memo's Editor Alex Wood and Techstars' Jess Williamson judged the hackathon winners. Image: Rajesh Taylor.

For anyone from a traditional finance background, it’s a difficult idea to get your head around. Banks are built on trust and in the old economy customers expected them to put security first before innovation. But now, thanks to this new influx of challengers, everything is changing.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for years” one developer shouted out during the pitch session. Don’t underestimate this change, it has the potential to transform the way we think about banks.

Mondo co-founder Tom Blomfield and hackathon participants. Image: Rajesh Taylor

I had the honour of judging the winners of the Mondo hackathon alongside Techstars London Director Jess Williamson.

The level of achievement was astounding. Each of the teams had just 48 hours to turn their ideas into working models that were built on top of Mondo. All of the attendees came from different backgrounds from newsroom developers at The Times to students and even the odd banker.

It struck me was how diverse the ideas were. Mon-donate, one of the runners up, tugged at my heartstrings with their brilliant concept. They created a system where each time you donate to charity, it calculates the impact of your giving.

For example, if you donate £10, you’ll get a notification thanking you and explaining you’ve now provided 7 mosquito nets for vulnerable people in areas affected by malaria. Friends in charities have told me holding onto regular supporters is one of the biggest challenges they face, so a simple add on like Mon-donate could make the world of difference. I hope they continue to develop the idea.

Mondo Web, an online banking interface created by James Allison

This teenager built a bank in a weekend

The next runner up was James Allison, who singlehandedly built an online banking interface – the platform users see when they interact with their banks from a laptop or desktop computer – in the course of a single weekend (Mondo is currently only available on iOS smartphones).

This was an incredible achievement for the solo teenager, who created the web interface in just 2 days, one that in my opinion would give most current banks a run for their money.

How many teenagers do you know that can build online banking in a weekend? This is one up-and-coming developer to watch.

Fixing our broken expenses system

TeamCash caught the attention of the judges and went on to be the overall winners of the weekend. By day Elliot Davies and Chris Hutchinson are developers working alongside the editorial teams at The Times in London.

Their brilliant hack fixes a problem faced by businesses big and small, getting your expenses in order. From one simple interface managers can track spending across a team, categorise it and easily export reports to the accounts department.

By plugging into Mondo’s systems TeamCash can match up with calendar appointments and make it easy to group expenses together for business trips and make sure everything is in order with a minimal amount of fuss. When it came to judging, Jess and I both looked at each other agreed “we need this in our companies, where do we sign up?!”.

Hackathon winners Chris Hutchinson and Elliot Davies. Image: Rajesh Taylor.

It was a challenge to pick out a winner as every one of the hackers created brilliant ideas. But this is just the beginning of I hope a bold new world for banking where everyday problems can be solved in a matter of hours.

My biggest takeaway has to be level of excitement around banks opening up their systems… after all, where else would you see hackers give a Tesla the once-over so that you can rent it with a quick tap of your bankcard…?