Changing Times: an interview with FT CIO Christina Scott

By Stuart Sumner
19 May 2014 View Comments
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The publishing industry has been described as being “in transition” for almost 20 years now, with declining advertising revenues from print proving the death-knell for many titles.

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One brand seeking to buck that trend is the Financial Times (FT). And key to the strategy to maintain profitability in an uncertain market is data.

“We have a strong analytics capability at the FT,” says CIO Christina Scott, from her office overlooking the Thames at the title’s London HQ. “But for a long time we’ve been working with old technology,” she continues. “We have a legacy data warehouse, and have been held back by the technology in terms of speed of requests.”

Scott is currently overseeing a project to move to a new data warehouse on Amazon Redshift, a cloud-based data warehousing solution, with enterprise business intelligence platform Birst sitting in front handling the reporting requirements.

Scott explains that this will free up the data analysts to do real analytics.

“In the past, requests from the business always came in to the data analytics team. The idea now is to put data in the hands of the lines of business, so they can get day-to-day requests self-served, and the data analytics teams are free to concentrate on exciting and complicated things like trend analysis.”

Though the FT selected Amazon Redshift, it first considered Hadoop Hive – an open-source distribution that effectively functions as a data warehouse – and a NoSQL database.

“We considered Hadoop Hive and NoSQL, but we’re on SQL server at the moment for legacy reasons and that’s where our in-house skills lie, so we wanted to stick with it. The thing that really drove us to Amazon Redshift is its flexibility,” Scott explains. “And we didn’t feel the FT needed a Hadoop Hive big data solution, because the amount of data we have doesn’t really warrant it. It’s great if you have lots of unstructured data, but most of our data is still pretty structured.”

Describing data as the first of three principal areas of focus, Scott says the second is membership. Scott says the FT is moving to Salesforce’s subscription management and customer service application Service Cloud, describing the previous legacy application as a “spaghetti system” as it had become so heavily customised no one could remember what had been built on top of it.

“For the first time this gives us a single customer view, so we use it for all print subscriptions, and all B2B and B2C needs.”

The FT has also teamed up with other media organisations including the BBC in an effort to create an open standard for business content to be linked semantically – known as business ontology.

“If we’re able to introduce a standard for business ontologies, we gain access to much more content. You’re no longer just looking at the FT and our content, but much more. Content aggregation is an interesting area for the FT and we are considering how we could build this into our products to deliver more value to the reader.”

It’s clear that all of these priorities, from data, through membership to content, relate very directly to business requirements, and ultimately to revenue. Data is the lifeblood of the modern media organisation, with its ability to engage and retain its readers vital to its success. And Scott is also using technology to help grow the FT’s audience.

Discussing what she terms the “enablers”, the metadata and APIs that enable content to be more widespread and easily accessible, she explains that third parties are now designing apps on the FT’s behalf to further enhance its reach.

Scott explains that Samsung designed an FT app for its Smart TV range, and Google built a version for its Play app store.

“The beauty of it is if you can provide content in a scalable way to outside parties, maybe they understand their platform better and have the skills to build apps for their platforms. We haven’t built TV apps at the FT – do we really need to do that in-house? So we partner with people like Samsung, Google and Flipboard, and if they have capability and are willing then great. That model is going to become more prevalent, you can’t possibly hope to build all those things in-house.”

Scott adds that the FT defines how its branding is used in these externally designed apps, and it puts agreements in place up front about customer data.

“The thing we really care about is customer data, we will agree that we find out how the customer uses the product, we get that information back,” she says.

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