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IBM head: beware ‘data bias’, up cyber focus

07:00am June 16 2018

IBM Asia Pacific head Harriet Green, second from right, on the judging panel of Westpac’s 2018 hackathon, BizHack. (Emma Foster)

IBM’s Asia Pacific head Harriet Green says Australian companies need to intensify their focus on cyber resilience, warning lack of planning was leaving their business and customers exposed.

Speaking to Westpac Wire during a visit to Sydney from her Singapore base to judge Westpac’s fourth annual hackathon yesterday, Ms Green said maintaining the security and integrity of data, or “data stewardship”, was one of the biggest issues facing companies, and too many Australian organisations lacked official cyber resiliency plans.

“In Australia, 63 per cent of publicly traded companies do not have a cyber resiliency plan that they’ve presented to their board. What does that say about companies, if they can't actually describe how they’re going to protect their client and employee data?” she said.

In the wake of several recent high profile data breaches and hacking incidents involving some of the world’s biggest companies, she stressed that IBM never looked at or used its clients’ data unless asked.

Ms Green said the implications of more data being produced every two days than the human race has ever created occupied a lot of her time and thinking, noting how IBM was “a totally different company” than five years ago as it works with clients to navigate a world that is producing data in “brontobytes – 10 times the grains of sand on the planet”.

“Artificial intelligence, cloud, block chain, advanced security, quantum, synapse computing – all the things that will help clients navigate the new competitive realities of the world. Close to half of our revenues are also made up from those new areas,” she said.

A participant pitches to the BizHack 2018 judges.

Just as worrying for Ms Green as the likes of cyber risk was the lack of diversity among coders and programmers, warning biases could be inserted into algorithms and affect the distribution of loans, welfare and education.

“Data has no bias. Data doesn't care about male or female. Data isn't trying to protect the norms of the past. Data is just data.  It's what we do with it that will be the manifestation of whether this generation is more worthy than others,” she said.  

Ms Green, who joins IBM’s CEO and chairman, and head of ASEAN as females in the most senior ranks of her organisation, believes there needs to be “a radical transforming of the face of talent” led by governments and businesses. “You need companies to be taking action. If not having targets, you need a clear goal of what success looks like in a business that people are measured on to achieve this rich, diverse environment.”

She said she was excited about the diversity among the 60-plus hackers who took part in Westpac’s hackathon, which was won by a team that conceived the idea of an AI-enabled financial mentor for millennials.

The winning hackathon team in Westpac’s BizHack 2018, who conceived an AI-enabled financial mentor for millennials.

Kate Cooper, Westpac’s head of innovation, said the event – where employees of Westpac, Telstra and IBM had 48 hours to “hack” at a solution to a business problem which they pitched to judges – marked the first time participants were able to work with anonymised data from Westpac and Telstra and could “stress test” their early stage ideas with a panel of 20 customers.

While conceding the boom in hackathons had led to perceptions they were simply “innovation theatre”, she said Westpac’s had clear outcomes, citing last year's winner had gone on to become CEO of his own internal “Insure Tech” start-up – a digital inventory product to be launched in New Zealand later this year.

Ms Cooper said she expected hackathons to continue to be run as part of Westpac’s “innovation methodology”, alongside its annual industry innovation challenge, and data accelerator FUELD, with each initiative catering to ideas at different stages of maturity.

IBM is Westpac’s technology partner and – along with Telstra – sponsored Westpac’s BizHack Hackathon. 

Emma Foster is a freelance writer. Previously, she led Westpac Wire and was a key contributor until December 2022. Prior to joining Westpac in 2013, she spent almost 20 years in corporate affairs and investor relations, primarily in large financial services and consultancy firms, in Australia, UK and Europe. She is also a photographer and podcaster.

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