Doing science the Wonga way

The model used by the payday loans company might finally make science work for everyone. Could we be about to enter the age of Wonga science?

Occasionally a corporate entity tries to get science done its way. Google, for instance, sponsors various researchers to find out whether their worthy, planet-improving idea can work. But what would we get if the payday loans company sponsored science?

It’s not an idle question. Just recently, up in committee room 17 of the House of Commons, Chi Onwurah, Labour’s science minister, gathered academics and asked for thoughts on the public role of science and how we should fund it. The responses weren’t terribly conclusive or enlightening. But one interesting thing came up – the origins of Wonga.

Wonga’s eye-watering prices (borrowing £400 for 28 days will cost you £117.48, for example) have been the subject of questions downstairs in the Commons and the Lords. Stella Creasy MP is trying to get the Financial Services Authority to cap the rate of interest a company can charge. She is supported in the other chamber by the future archbishop of Canterbury, who has called Wonga’s business model “morally wrong”.

Apparently the algorithm behind was originally developed to detect banking fraud. The subtext in Onwurah’s meeting was clear – Wonga is an evil application of perfectly good algorithms, and if someone had said those algorithms could lead to Wonga questions would have been asked of those funding their development. Especially, perhaps, if Onwurah were in charge. When Wonga ploughed £24m into Newcastle Football Club in exchange for on-shirt advertising, Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, expressed outrage. She called Wonga a source of “debt and misery”.

There are two reasons to take issue with this. First, many people are clearly happy to pay hundreds of pounds for a short-term loan. Wonga’s reported customer satisfaction is above Apple’s and far above that recorded by any of the high-street banks. Second, Onwurah’s remit is innovation, science and digital infrastructure and yet she slurs a company that has used science and digital infrastructure to innovate. The firm is expanding into the US and is on course to become a billion-dollar company next year.

The good news is that the government will soon have a Wonga-friendly chief scientific adviser. Mark Walport is at present the director of the Wellcome Trust, the UK’s largest scientific and medical research charity and an investor in Wonga. When Creasy challenged Walport about this, he replied that he finds Wonga “extremely engaging”, with a good business model and a willingness to listen to feedback.

This bodes extremely well for Walport’s stint as the UK’s most influential scientist. Clearly, he’s not populist, he’s not swayed by conflicts with authority and he’s not averse to a bit of level-headed thinking.

Coming round

If Onwurah comes round, she and Walport might even usher in the age of Wonga science. This would be open to no-fuss funding of projects and people that are currently considered unfundable, ending the pyramid scheme that makes life easy for established professors and near-impossible for those trying to become established. It would reward people who cross disciplines to achieve optimum productivity (one of Wonga’s co-founders, Jonty Hurwitz, trained as a mathematician and physicist and then became a software engineer and entrepreneur). Pursuing interdisciplinary research is widely known as a fast track to the funding wilderness.

Wonga science would present straight-talking science advice to government and pursue research that has no useful application in sight. It would also encourage scientists to take things we already have and find entirely new purposes for them. Most appealing, it might show us gaps in our scientific research that no one even realised were there. The Wonga model might finally make science work for everyone.


Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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Connected - to save time, money and lives

Businesses and the public sector in the UK are increasingly exploring new ways they can work with the help of connected technology – and the benefits this will bring.

We live in a world that’s increasingly connected. EE was born three years ago and has spent this time creating one of the fastest and most reliable 4G networks in any country. The effect of this growth means more for the British population as a whole, along with its critical infrastructure and emergency responders, than it does for individuals and consumers.

Why? Mobility, according to analysts CCS Insight, is “the fulcrum of digital transformation”. In the short time that mobile networks have existed – and the even shorter and more profound growth arc of 4G – mobility has moved from being about faster speeds and more services on our phones to a whole new world of possibilities for the way we live and work.

The latest mobile technologies can make small companies look big. And, the experts warn, they can make big companies look unintentionally small.

Over 500,000 businesses in the UK use our network and services to increase productivity and save money. Much of the public sector uses it to save money too – and save lives. We’d like to walk you through the stories emerging from this new world – sharing some examples of what happens when workers, customers and machines become truly connected.

Connected Vehicle

Businesses in the UK have long treated their cars, vans and other vehicles as their mobile offices, workshops or command centres, whether for field engineers, sales reps or dozens of other roles. But it’s not always been easy. 

That’s changing. Take utility Northumbrian Water. It is responsible for 55,000km of pipelines, many in rural parts of the UK. It has found a solution in the Connected Vehicle service from EE that is based on transportgrade equipment. External antennae on a van connect to a ruggedised router that deals with extreme temperatures and can handle vibrations from road surfaces. 4G becomes a shared WiFi connection for workers and devices out in the field, increasing their efficiency significantly as workers can stay connected on site, rather than having to travel back to the office.

And is it effective?

“The business case writes itself,” said Alan Sherwen, head of IS service and operations at Northumbrian Water, which is now looking at a wider rollout.

Beyond the private sector, the public sector is throwing off its image as a technology laggard. Blue-light fire, police and ambulance services are doing more than just seeing the potential.

East Midlands Ambulance Service’s head of IM&T, Steve Bowyer, describes his experience with 4G’s “reliable, consistently fast data connections” as “quite transformational”.

The ambulance service knows that every second counts, especially when accidents occur in remote locations.

Bowyer calls the use of 4G-connected vehicles “an extension of our control room” – for example, 4G-equipped ambulances allow paramedics to send vital information to hospitals ahead of arrival.

And it’s a similar story with the police. Officers collect and submit evidence from the scenes of crimes and accidents. Staffordshire Police has started to use connected vehicles and more broadly estimates its 4G devices provide the equivalent of 250,000 additional hours of policing time on the beat each year. That’s the equivalent of 100 extra officers.

Rapid Site

The technology we’re talking about – fast, robust, often rural connectivity – isn’t always about being on the move. Industries such as construction that occupy a location sometimes for a matter of months are also employing high-speed, managed services to serve those on site.

Jackson Civil Engineering used to have to wait three months to get a line installed. It was holding back the business.

“The challenges I face are making sure the guys on site get connectivity and transmit information from laptops, mobile phones and tablets,” said Justin Corneby, the company’s IT manager. “If there’s no connectivity for our guys on the ground it almost stops them working completely.” Now setup at a new location takes under three days, and speeds tend to be up to 60Mbps where, before, a fixed line gave the company 8Mbps.

Housing association Green Square faces a similar challenge in its efforts to supply about 400 homes every year in the west of England.

Mark Gingell, ICT service manager at Green Square, said: “[We have] some challenges about how do we get our staff access to the internet. What we want is a seamless process for them to be able to log on and have the information at hand. The ultimate goal is to make great places where people can live.”

Public WiFi – in a box

Other types of business are on this connected journey too. Richardson’s operates 310 holiday boats on the Norfolk Broads and 4G Public WiFi from EE means not only coverage and simplicity for customers wanting internet access but knowing that compliance and online safety for families, through web filtering, is taken care of. In fact a whole range of businesses are now possible, many employing mobile payments systems which through their security and 4G connections open up a world of pop-up possibilities to businesses big and small.

Connected Health 

And lastly, the NHS is showing us that innovation can be built on even relatively simple technology. ‘Did not attend’ – or DNAs – cost the health service around £900m every year. That breaks down as £137 for every missed hospital appointment, £45 for each at a GP’s surgery. 

Intelligent messaging from EE means patients get a text message and simply reply to cancel or confirm an appointment. DNAs have been reduced by 67 per cent in one case, freeing up slots for others. That means there is the potential to save the NHS over £500m annually, just by improving the booking and scheduling service for patients with intelligent messaging. Meanwhile healthcare professionals get to target groups by demographics – for example, elderly people when it’s flu jab season. In short, this approach saves time, saves money and even saves lives.

Now you can

When we were the first to launch 4G in the UK, we had a simple message: Now you can. Most people took that to mean simply that smartphones, tablets, laptops and upcoming smart devices could get a faster network connection. But it’s been about much more than that.

Today, being connected in this way is a vital component for business and Britain’s vital public services. Our recent research of 1,000 UK businesses shows that 50 per cent of customers say 4G is critical to their business success. They report a 10 per cent uptick in productivity when adopting 4G – and gains can be greater in the public sector.

And we’re nowhere near finished. Now any organisation in the private or public sector can share in this connected story, employing new technology and innovative approaches as a managed service or in any way that best works for them. We are just as excited about the next three years as the last three.