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Mastercard CDO JoAnn Stonier on using data to transform economies, AI

"Our ability to intervene at this moment in time is precious..."

If there is one learning to have come from the disruption impacting our economies, organisations, and people, it is this: crisis demands action. It demands decisiveness. It demands movement and choice. In moments of crisis, our pace of ideation and implementation is challenged.

We realise we were kidding ourselves as we implemented ‘perfectly’ designed operating models; the flaws of which we can no longer tolerate. Opportunities stare us in the face. We realise that our survival relies on seizing them, writes Rainmaker Solutions MD Christina Hammond-Aziz.

In such moments all eyes turn to a different cohort of leaders. They turn to those amongst us who have spent their entire careers in relentless pursuit of making our organisations better. Those constantly focused on identifying where we should act and why. Those brave enough to imagine what an organisation could be, while grounded enough to roll up their sleeves and make it possible for their teams and colleagues to get there. In this series I am focused on sharing their insights: the hard-won knowledge of the challengers, the agitators, the reformers.

Or as I call them, the Changemakers. Among them is JoAnn Stonier, the Chief Data Officer (CDO) at Mastercard, the payment network processor and technology company that connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments, digital partners, businesses and other organisations worldwide.

Mastercard CDO JoAnn Stonier: Changemaker

JoAnn has had an eclectic career: as she puts it: “If you look at my crazy CV, I have a law degree, I'm a lawyer, I'm an accountant, I started out my career as an auditor, I also have a technology degree… all of these skills have come together in what I do at Mastercard.”

They’ve come together in a powerful way -- and JoAnn brings a unique take to the CDO role.

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As former Chief Privacy Officer, an Aspen Institute First Mover Fellow and advisor to organisations ranging from the United Nations to the World Economic Forum, she’s acutely aware of how powerful data can be: as fuel for engines of innovation, but also as a force that, misused, can entrench social inequalities by baking bias into algorithms of increasing power.

Here are some of her lessons:

Recognise your purpose and use it to drive everything you do.

Like all true Changemakers, JoAnn knows that the things that drive her go far beyond business objectives and goals.

“I didn't grow up wealthy. I grew up in a pretty humble family. We didn't have a whole lot. My mom was a single parent. I had the really good fortune of having amazing people that were very generous with their time with me when I was first in college, I had a friend whose brother and his wife were willing to sit me down and help me do mock interviews -- and I'm forever grateful that they did that when I was interviewing out of college. So when I think about things like privacy, or I think about AI, and I think about bias, I also think about how I want to show up in the world, because these products and solutions, they're going to impact people; we need to be ethical and care about this next generation of solutions and how they are designed.”

See also: Changemakers - Daljit Rehal, CDIO, HMRC

JoAnn has one goal, to ensure an AI-powered world does not become one that entrenches bias: “We've been a B2B company with a B2C brand for a really long time. But almost everything anyone does in this data-driven world eventually, really, really hits the individual; it will be individually impactful. If you understand how that's important – for example making decisions about peoples’ fraud risk -- then you're going to care about the output and about the data you're collecting, how you're organising that data, the quality of the information. And when I say ‘individually impactful’ I really mean that.

Understand the responsibility AI brings

That responsibility is something she believes we all need to recognise. “[AI] can help us go through piles of data faster; we can get better insights; we can get to better products, but only if we're careful. It’s really important that we care about the output [of algorithms] and about the data you're collecting, how you're organising that data, the quality of the information… Because as Artificial Intelligence begins to learn from what we’re creating today, you want it to matter for future generations too. Our ability to intervene at this moment in time is precious. Because if we’re sloppy, the world can get to a worse place. So we’re really designing for the future.”

For her, Mastercard’s Principles of Data Responsibility are not some PR gambit, but something that the company needs to and does, take immensely seriously. At Mastercard, her role is “to play a red card on data risk. [Mastercard’s board] view me as somebody who understands risks of non-compliance. So if I say ‘no’, it really can't be done. Although I'm more biased to being able to say ‘yes, but we need to do it this way’. I report into the head of our data business, so that we can really align together on what we want to do with data in order to innovate and move the firm forward…”

Change the narrative around change, entirely.

Above all else, JoAnn recognises that she is designing for the future. That requires change, something we both recognise is hard. JoAnn flips that on its head.

“I have a design background, and I think that that helps” she says. “We live in a world that's driven by data, a world that’s changing faster and faster. One of the challenges that every organisation -- whether they're a digital native company, or a more traditional company that is changing in the digital age --  has to recognise is that they have to figure out how to design better.

See also: Changemakers - Sol Rashidi, Chief Analytics Officer, Estée Lauder

“All of our design work is really meant to be future-proofed for about three years out, which is about as far out as we can see, with any clear knowledge. Therefore when faced with a blocker, it really helps to see things as design constraints.

“Whether it's a new law, a change in our data footprint as Mastercard, or an aspiration of where we want to go as a firm, that’s a design constraint, in the same way that if you think about when you design a building you have certain restrictions around where the electricity is or where the plumbing is. I prefer to say to my team, let's approach the challenge that way, then it becomes a design thinking exercise. Because change is hard; design is fun, right? If you say you're going to ‘change’ your house, I think it's a whole different sense than if you're going to design your house or redesign your house.’”

Break the silos by listening maniacally

JoAnn knows that data and designing the future cannot belong in a silo. “My team is sitting between the business teams and the technology teams; what we do is we actually sit as part of the full product development cycle. We need to understand and design the data strategy in order to enable the business strategy…”

“We sit and we listen maniacally to the business teams about what is it that they want to achieve, and then we consider what data is needed. Is it the data that we have? Or is it data that we need to go and acquire in order to execute a business strategy? If it’s data that we use for our fraud teams, how do we use that data? How do we enhance that data? In order to come up with fraud solutions or cyber solutions? Or, increasingly, now we're getting into the area of identity management: so, what data do we need in order to responsibly create those solutions?”

Go further, and codesign with a community.

In fact, JoAnn takes it even further. Breaking not just the silos in Mastercard, but across Data communities. Engagement with a broad community of equally far-seeing policy makers, as well as fellow Chief Data Officers helps her keep a bird’s eye view of emerging issues and opportunities, she emphasises.

JoAnn is not just setting the strategic direction for the use of the company’s terabytes of information asset, but “the typical functions of data governance and data management, data quality, as well as really the creation of enterprise data, assets and information systems; navigating laws like GDPR and the CCPA, and increasingly navigating data risk as that becomes more and more of an issue.”

Read this: Changemakers - Resistance to change is yesterday's logic

She knows “that includes navigating risks that are known and unknown; some of them are less obvious risks that go along with things like AI and machine learning, the data quality, the bottom risks of bias, both in the input data, as well as in how you're creating your algorithms and how you are applying them…”

It’s why JoAnn is part of a much wider community. A non-exhaustive list reveals quite how seriously she takes that – and the extent to which her knowledge is sought after. She currently serves on the United Nations Expert Group on Governance and Artificial Intelligence ; is co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Data Policy and is an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute, where she teaches business strategy and international business in the Design Management Master’s Program. (She is also a board advisor for Truata, a data trust co-founded by Mastercard and IBM, and serves on the board of trustees for Academy of Mount St. Ursula, where she attended high school in Bronx, New York.)

Trust your teams, implicitly.

Whilst engaged with so many people, JoAnn is laser focused on her team. She freely admits, as a leader “I’m very demanding – I often say ‘no shortcuts’. We have to write things properly, which means learning about things properly: build a community of people that are way smarter than you about certain things, and really be willing to be humble and say, ‘I don't know what you're talking about. Can you explain that to me? Can you slow down? Can you tell me about it? Or can you tell me where I can go to learn more?”

“I tell my team that I really only have one rule, which is to tell the truth, and then we can figure it out from there”, she notes. “I like going through the hard stuff together, but I also trust my team implicitly; they are an amazing team and I love to see them grow and prosper.”

Finally, let data show you new paths.

This is where JoAnn’s contribution to making brilliant change is clear. She has worked out how to leverage what her company has done, and see what it can do, by letting data show her the way.

“If you think about our original network, we enabled payments to happen: we would swipe or tap our card at a merchant; it would immediately go on our rails to the acquiring bank; we would check for fraud, we check with your bank that you have enough credit or debit in your account; then we do the payment settlement.

“Our products to a certain extent, and our innovation, is in some of the same lanes we've always been in: improving fraud, improving security, improving identity, but we have been using our network and our connectivity in a much more powerful way.

“We’re adding in analytics and insights and providing them to merchants, banks, governments. After Covid we used aggregated data to begin to understand how different economies could re-emerge, predict how a ‘look-alike’ city might respond to a crisis.”

Ultimately moving Mastercard from payments to providing insight that transforms economies.

See also: Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Pamela Dyson on going from designer to CIO -- and digital transformation at the Fed