Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Amplifying the Utility of National IDs

National identification systems come in many flavors. Roughly 60% of nations have some form of national ID card, but the requirements, coverage, captured data, and advantages of possessing a card vary greatly. Some developing countries (e.g., Malaysia, Estonia) are models of multi-purpose systems that allow efficient access to a broad range of services, while helping the state manage civic and social programs. Other efforts to create a national ID system have faltered due to corruption, inefficiency, poor leadership, political in-fighting, or suspicion that the system will be used as a means of state control or oppression. Kentaro Toyama may have been thinking of national ID systems when he explained the "Law of Amplification." He states: "Technology doesn't cause a fixed benefit wherever it's used; rather, it amplifies underlying human forces. ... Democratic governments use digital tools to improve transparency, but repressive regimes censor content and track voices of protest online."

When designed and managed well, national ID cards facilitate a number of critical functions - travel, banking, healthcare, driving, and voting, to name a few. With biometric features built in, the potential for fraud is greatly reduced, and issues such as illiteracy and mobility are mitigated. Further, a national identification system increases the potential of digital and mobile services. However, there are myriad challenges to implementing a comprehensive, efficient system. Integration with state, health, education, and financial systems is complex, and requires active collaboration among a diverse set of federal and provincial organizations. The process of developing and rolling out a comprehensive system is expensive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive. After launch, the collection, storage, and use of data require a lot of training and skilled management. And public buy-in is not guaranteed.

The development community can play a vital role in helping governments design and implement (or improve) a national ID system with the broadest positive impact. Development organizations can sponsor research, provide guidance, coordinate development efforts between stakeholders, deliver training, and measure effectiveness. Organizations can leverage long histories and influential contacts in specific verticals (e.g., healthcare, financial services) to ensure that ID systems are well integrated with their areas of focus. They can also advocate for strong privacy and security measures. For many in the development community, the benefits of a viable national ID (particularly with biometric features) are readily apparent. A reliable ID system is essential for the expansion of other ICT4D, allowing organizations to verify the identity of aid recipients, deliver and track healthcare, expand financial services to the poor, reduce elections fraud, and increase state revenues through taxation. With focus and tenacity, development organizations can ensure that national ID systems amplify the good in the countries they serve.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Innovation for Emerging Markets Done Right

A recent Nugget considered some of the latest innovations that would be clearly useful in emerging markets, but were being priced, marketed or distributed almost exclusively in mature markets - often for less compelling use cases like gaming, back-up power, or delivering dog food to remote Australian farmers. Perhaps a bit of balance is in order. There are many examples of novel technologies and ideas that also have a clear utility to emerging-market users, and are being marketed and distributed specifically to those consumers.

Consider the following innovations:
  • Swiss scientists made a 1.3-ounce, foldable quadcopter that can deliver messages or take photos of inaccessible disaster areas.
  • What3words assigns a unique 3-word identifier (currently in 8 languages) to every 3 square meters on the planet. Companies pay to use the technology, which has been piloted in the favelas of Rio, where there are no street names or house numbers. If widely adopted, it could revolutionize navigation and delivery services throughout the developing world.
  • The "power bank phone," with 3 SIM card slots, a brick-sized battery with connections to charge other phones, a light, and an FM radio, addresses all of the pain points of a typical Ghanaian - frequent blackouts, multiple promotions by different carriers, and increasingly power-hungry apps. It is flying off the shelves in Ghana.
  • Facebook Lite is a low-bandwidth variation of the popular site aimed squarely at EM users who have to deal with slow, spotty 2G networks and high data costs. The new offering carefully strips back the features to offer the Facebook experience with lower bandwidth (and cost to the end user).
These innovations, created to meet specific developing-country needs, are coming from a wide range of sources (academia, start-ups, hardware companies, Internet giants). Some of these groups are better equipped than others to navigate the varied go-to-market challenges of achieving scale in diverse emerging markets, but all have the advantage of a compelling use case and swelling, increasingly tech-savvy, consumer ranks. There are many examples of viable products that started with nothing more than these basic ingredients. The emerging-markets focus and ceaseless drive to mobile and cloud technologies make these innovations - and many others - promising opportunities. Localized, social-driven marketing, together with new funding and business models, lend these opportunities an encouraging timeliness.