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(By Lyndsey Petro, 26 August 2016) 

Have you ever asked someone what makes up their identity or thought about what makes up yours?  Some of the things that may come to mind are family, community, personality and occupation. And what is it exactly that makes you a person? Perhaps it’s your ability to interact with others, to learn, to love. As people, we think of our identities as very personal and subjective configurations of who we are. And ownership of that identity, is most definitely with us, the individual.

If we think in more practical terms, there are a number of things that give us ‘recognised’ identities. Birth certificates and identity documents register us legitimate people in the eyes of governments and a host of other organisations. Various manifestations of these types of documents grant us access to privileges and services; access to social grants, ability to open up a bank account etc. There are certain things we simply cannot do without proof of our identities.

As we navigate life and various institutions, we also build up these identities; like our identity CVs, and various links are made to construct a picture of this identity. For example, our identity number is associated with our credit record and our credit record impacts our ability to access credit in the future. 

Importantly, when it comes to ownership of these documents, it is the issuing authorities, not the individual themselves, who can claim ownership.

The importance of identity management becomes particularly evident when it comes to young children in marginalised communities.  

When it comes to accessing health and education services for children, identity documents and personal information are of utmost importance. Registering a child’s birth and giving them a name establishes a child’s right to their identity, becoming an assertion of their existence in society. Furthermore, it determines what other rights, privileges and opportunities may be enjoyed, or from which they are excluded in future.

An example of the storage of children’s identity information Considering all of the above, current methods used for managing and administering identities are questionable. In the context of children attending early childhood development (ECD) centres this reality becomes particularly evident. The pictures on the left and below were taken at an ECD centre in Delportshoop in the Northern Cape. This is the form of storage used by the centre (and probably many other centres) for children’s documents that provide them with their identities (birth certificates, registration at the centre, progress reports etc.).

For information that is so essential to the future of a child to be managed in this manner is extremely problematic and concerning. Individual children are disadvantaged when they are left without essential identity documents, due to documents being lost or destroyed. While security and storage of these identity documents are already problematic, there are further issues to be considered.

Identity and personal information about a child’s family, where they live and other key data are needed by every organisation and service that they will interact with. Over time, these interactions build the person’s profile and credibility in society (like a CV or credit record) and are the foundation for trust agreements — such as being accepted into a school, or opening a bank account. This information is also used to provide services and interventions that are timeous and appropriate.

An example of the filing system for information related to a child’s identity and ‘credibility’Today, social benefit and service providers are still duplicating the work of registering and validating the identity and eligibility of each of their ‘clients’. Moreover, they retain this information privately and the individual parent or child gains no personal ownership over their own information, which could enable them to transact with other service providers, or to benefit from increased credibility.

The information these organisations collect about what benefits each child actually receives tends to be analog, fuzzy and lumped together in averages — such as when this is reported on or used for accountability and planning. And their digital identity and personal information can be exploited by third parties, without benefit to the child.

The question then becomes, what do we do about this?

For 9Needs, the solution is self-sovereign digital identities, grounded on the belief that individuals have the right to ownership of their personal information, especially in the context of ECD. 9needs is currently prototyping a distributed, decentralised digital identity solution based on revolutionary blockchain technology.

In short, having a unique digital identity benefits individual children because they can prove their eligibility to receive services and benefits from a range of service providers. Any information that is collected in the process is owned by the child for their own future benefit.

A production-scale open and decentralised platform, based on the Ethereum blockchain is currently under development. The identity management platform will provide a scalable and low-cost back-end infrastructure, which ECD applications can interact with. Furthermore, the generated real-time data will be stored and encrypted to ensure decentralised ownership of the data.

This platform enables:

  • Creation and management of trusted registries of self-sovereign digital identities for ECD agents and beneficiaries;
  • Standard digital identifiers to be shared between organisations to record, update, validate, deliver, receive, store and distribute associated information about services or benefits that are delivered;
  • Recording of transactional metadata, value transfers and personal information as Data for Development (D4D), for public good;
  • Children to have their own ‘Digital Wallet’ in which important digital assets, including their personal information and scans of their important documents will be privately and securely stored;
  • Decentralised Applications to be configured that encode ‘business rules’ (using Smart Contracts) in such a way that processes such as registration, incentives, monitoring, payments - can be automated and trusted.

This is really just the beginning. Establishing a digital identity system is the starting point for more transparency and legitimate, measurable impact in social development.

Follow us as we embark on this journey.