By Dr. Joseph J. Atick, Executive Chairman, ID4Africa
Harmonization is the theme of this year’s ID4Africa Annual Meeting. It is a term that has received a lot of attention recently because of the current fragmentation in the African identity ecosystems. But what does it really mean? And how can a country achieve it?
An ecosystem is said to be harmonized if two conditions are satisfied. First the identity of a real person is unique and is linkable across all identity databases (assuming legal authority and privacy protections are in place). These repositories include foundational databases such as civil registers, national population registers as well as functional registers serving sectoral needs such as databases of voters or health insurance, to name a couple. Second if these databases are synchronized for life, in that when an update takes place it propagates across the ecosystem. In practice, achieving full harmonization is difficult and the road to get there may be long depending on the starting point and the country’s capacity. That should not discourage anyone, because steps made towards harmonization can have significant value, even when full harmonization is incomplete; the exercise is not all or nothing.
What is an identity ecosystem?
An ID ecosystem is the ensemble of the components listed in Table 1 pooled from all sectors and integrated to empower the beneficiaries to assert their unique identity to claim legal, human, and administrative rights, while at the same time being held accountable for their individual responsibilities towards the relying parties. From an administrative perspective a properly functioning ID ecosystem supports service delivery. It leads to more efficient, effective and transparent governments.
The current reality: The identity silos
Absent central or coordinated planning or national regulations; it is inevitable that the identity ecosystem in a country will develop into silos (Fig. 1), which is the case in most African countries today, where multiple identity systems proliferate serving different functions with little link among them.
The emergence of ID silos is the path of least resistance for the development of the ecosystem. It is easier to launch an identity program standalone, where an agency is not constrained by multi-stakeholder coordination. It represents lower initial
cost and faster adoption. Consequently, many of these identity systems have developed quickly and organically without necessarily working within a national identification strategy, which is difficult to adopt given that such a strategy would require political will at the highest level to pressure the typically large number of stakeholders to cooperate.
In addition to the high degree of non-interoperability that exists today, the identity systems themselves continue to have low coverage, no Unique Identifying Number that is used by all, no common identity model and no uniformly recognizable credentials. The Consequences are;
- Big challenges to service delivery.
- High exclusion & high inconvenience to the public.
- Undermined development (especially banking sector).
- Duplication of effort and investments.
- Challenged civil sector reform.
- Limited range of possible applications and e-Services.
- A missed opportunity to serve the public better.
Call to action: A pragmatic checklist
It is clear the current situation must change. Identity stakeholders in each African country collectively have the opportunity to rectify this situation by working together to adopt policy and actions that steer the country towards ultimate harmonization.
Here is a pragmatic checklist of the actions that the stakeholders should consider as they undertake to reform the identity practices in their country:
Pathways to harmonization of identity data Pathway I: Fresh start
In the circumstance that the assessment reveals that there is no data of sufficient quality in the sectoral repositories, then this is the pathway to take. This is the same pathway taken successfully in India, Pakistan, Estonia and Peru, to name a few.
In this case the TSC designates an institution in a privileged role, e.g. National Identity Authority (NIDA) or Commission or its equivalent (Fig. 2). NIDA is tasked with building and maintaining up to date a national population register (NPR), which contains the identifying data of all individuals in the country (citizens, legal residents, refugees). This register would be used as a foundational system that supports all functional needs of all the other sectoral stakeholders.
NIDA would have the following tasks:
- Enroll the entire population using the national identity data model (minimal amount of data).
- Deduplicate the identity records.
- Assign a Unique Identity Number (UIN).
- Build on-line identity services that include verification and identification.
Sectoral agencies from that point on would link their services to the UIN and would use the online identity services provided by NIDA to verify the identity of potential claimants of service. Nothing would prevent each agency from enriching the identifying data with sector specific information (KYC: know your customer). In India the Aadhaar number is now required for all government services. This model has advantages and disadvantages as shown in Table 2.
Of course, this is the opportunity to connect civil registration to the National Population Register by ensuring that birth certificates are issued with the UIN which is generated by NIDA and that the UIN will accompany the individual from cradle to grave.
There are several variations on this model, where NIDA employs Agents in order to rectify some of the disadvantages inherent to this pathway for harmonization:
Pathway II: Reuse of legacy data
If the assessment conducted by the TSC reveals some valuable legacy identity data, then a cost benefit analysis would have to be performed to determine if it makes sense economically to reuse that data (Fig. 4). This is an exercise of integration of databases which is not trivial but is doable with the right technology. It involves establishing correspondence between the same identities across different databases even when the identity data models are different and the data quality non-uniform. Some of what is involved may include:
• Implementing entity or identity resolution technologies to allow establishing correspondences among identity records across different databases.
• Implementing the latest versions of Automated Biometric Identification Systems (ABIS) that allow for matching partial, imperfect or low quality biometric data samples. Over the years biometric matching technology has improved dramatically, which means that the chances of discovering reliable links are higher today than they were five years ago. Still data quality remains the most critical factor for success.
• In practice the pathway chosen will be a hybrid of path I & II where some high-quality data is reusable while for the rest a fresh start would be required.
• It is not enough to harmonize data at one point in time, need to synchronize on an ongoing basis. To do that, sectoral agencies must commit to using the UIN systematically and to relegate all updates to identity data to NIDA.
While the path to harmonization of the identity ecosystem in a country depends on what identity assets exist and the fact patterns specific to that country, in our opinion the majority of African countries, are better off choosing Pathway I, the fresh-start path. This should be coupled with strong policy mandating the use of the unique identity number for the business processes of as many sectoral agencies as practical. We also recommend the use of registrars to accelerate achieving full coverage, which should be one of the primary goals of any reform.
No matter what steps are taken, it is important that identity systems developed in Africa from here on adhere to international standards. This protects the country’s investment by avoiding vendor lock-in and allowing more flexibility to meet all future and evolving needs. Today, the landscape of standards that impact identity systems is highly developed as can be seen from Table 3.
Navigating that tapestry requires the guidance of competent experts in the domain of ISO standards. We recommend that the Technical Steering Committee retain the right consultants for this task and insist that any procurement in the country must make the applicable standards part of the requirements in any procurement or request for proposals documents.