Why is digital capability important in humanitarian settings?

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

Real-life events have a dramatic effect on the technology adoption curve. India witnessed one instance of such during the demonetisation cycle. It led to a number of players offering a variety of services to handle financial transactions. And the steady adoption of digital payments is evidence of a shift in habits and increase of trust in the network which is created.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Events of global scale such as the outbreak of COVID-19 (also known as “Coronavirus”) bring about a whole new dimension to technology adoption and roadmap creation. With various protocols of quarantine, isolation and distancing in place, the need to manage, maintain and securely share one’s personally identifiable information (PII) becomes an important activity. And as more individuals become remote workers or engage with service providers over the internet, trusted data exchange of PIIs are pivotal for access to services such as personal, financial, medical and otherwise. A frictionless remote experience is built around the premise of easy access to PII and secure management of the relevant aspects of that data packet.

This is a key moment in the technology adoption curve of “Self-Sovereign Identity” (SSI). And while there is no exact definition of SSI, the enshrined principles include individuals having sole ownership of their digital identities. It is important to comprehend how the concept of identity is embedded in our daily lives. Every day we interplay with various facets of our identity — the individual; the social and the legal. And we fluidly engage with the fixed aspects (legal) with the variable aspects (social and individual) without putting conscious efforts. We use and extend our real-life identities and supplement them with paper/physical copies in order to gain access to services where we have accounts. And we do this via intermediary/broking services. The portable nature of SSI allows individuals to use a consent-based mechanism while sharing minimal required information (or, “claims”) without needing an intermediary.

The notion of a digital identity goes hand in hand with the topics of data protection, data security and addressing the topic of inequity. More than a billion people around the world lack an ID and are thus unable to access services. And yet, merely providing everyone with a digital ID is not going to address issues of citizenship and individual rights. The adoption and implementation of a distributed ledger technology (DLT) based digital identity system requires a governance framework. SSI also enables concepts which are very familiar to us in real life — delegation, guardianship and ownership. By adopting existing legal structures while putting the user in control of the identity, SSI attempts to address the issue of collaboration across borders by using open standards and open-source software development models.

Mobile-first user experience in owning and sharing digital identity will incentivise the institutions interacting with users (and customers) to quickly adopt the benefits provided by SSI. These include PII based checks for access to health services; secure sharing of medical and health information and enhanced granularity in access to relevant health data. Extensive remote working habits will influence the services which need signatures on documents. Electronic document verification, apostille services would need blending foundational digital identities prior to completing the workflows. The financial technology (fintech) space has already been putting together the basic building blocks for integration with identity and verification services. The challenge is to focus on wider adoption of these technology components; address the topic of absence of always-on internet, and the possibility of discrimination as not everyone will be equally placed when joining this shift in doing business.

In the world before COVID-19, the adoption of SSI was based on digital transformation in a phased manner. In light of restrictions put forward by various nations cooperating to control the spread, those plans would need to be accelerated and focus on creating minimal disruption to citizens. For instance, aside from medical, financial and legal use cases, there is an immediate need to supplement the online delivery of education with the creation of digital credentials for skills and accomplishments. As large academic institutions switch-over to an internet-based delivery of content and examinations, enabling a lifelong learning recognition system available to the user is needed when the learners return to work or use the acquired knowledge to seek new jobs. The talent identification and acquisition process would need a considerable set of tweaks in order to adjust to this change. Pandemics and other global events create new structures of work and life. And while each individual approaches the change in their own way, the landscape of services and the baseline experience of everyday interactions changes — often for the better.

SSI based approaches to building enterprise technology architecture and making those available as public utility have the potential to improve the lives of citizens. The Sovrin Foundation has put emphasis on the establishment of a governance framework to drive the adoption of SSI and encourage incubation of companies which develop and deploy services on the design principles of self-sovereign identity. COVID-19 represents a humanitarian use-case. However, there is a world of use cases not limited to humanitarian crises in which to create and shape more ethical and inclusive systems enabling identity for all. Social and technology trends point in the direction of increased mobility, self-ownership and focus on equal access. Self-Sovereign Identity-based systems, where the users are in control of access to their data, is the right way to deliver on the promise of the technology.