The Role of Communities and the Individual: Digital Identity and Human-Centred Design
With a general understanding that addressing the “data deficit” will require new forms of public/private data sharing agreements and that the governance of these shared commonly-managed resources will require contextually-based policies with granular levels of control, the question becomes: where should these new technology-based tools be applied? What challenges should be prioritized and how should they be implemented?
If the data deficit is characterized as a public/private commercial innovation challenge and governance is an ethical and policy challenge, the issue of “how well do we understand the local context” can be seen as a design challenge. Establishing an ecosystem that is sustainable, balanced and principled will require approaches that account for the complex and dynamic relationships and movement of data and information among multiple entities (i.e. infrastructure and tool providers, producers, consumers, processors, curators, auditors, etc.).14
Through the lens of human-centered design, information needs, creation and distribution systems can be seen as fluid systems that adapt and regenerate according to the obstacles, challenges and needs of a given situation and community. Combining macro-level analysis (i.e. media landscape, information infrastructures, and political/regulatory environments), granular observations (i.e. information availability, needs, and distribution), with human and social insights (i.e. identifying information disseminators and influencers) can be viewed as an important way for policymakers and practitioners to design the most appropriate and effective strategies for individuals, communities and societies.
Internews, “Why Information Matters: A Foundation for Resilience” (December 2014)
As a first step, many stakeholders must be educated. In particular, at the start the focus should be on understanding the local utility and economic value creation that can accrue to individuals through a more trusted, transparent and accountable data ecosystem. Additionally, awareness building within the technology sector would help recognize how little private actors know about the depth and complexity of delivering on the goals of sustainable development. There have been decades of failed ICT-for-development interventions led by technologists providing “solutions” to problems they did not fully understand.
Holistic approaches are needed, focused on in-depth learnings of the local needs, wants, aspirations and social context, as well as the economic and political environment of the needs. A deeper appreciation for “dark data”, which is not yet known but is needed, is a requirement.
By addressing the issue of how all stakeholders can more effectively listen, learn and adapt as a design challenge, new ways of thinking, seeing and behaving can emerge to help address the significant power dynamics, velocity of change and trust. Incorporating an appreciation of social relationships, human context and dynamic networks of control and influence are critical to a richer understanding of the impact of data-driven technologies on communities, cities and larger socio-ecological systems.15 Examining how data collection, storage and usage systems are actually being built in different parts of the world, how they are being contested and negotiated by different stakeholders and what impact these power struggles are having on the subsequent form of their governance are complex yet important questions to ask.16
In that light, one of the central tensions where the dynamics of system design can be seen is in the “centralized versus distributed” debate. There are multiple and overlapping sets of conversations that pivot around the “centralized vs distributed” differences (internet governance, the impact of “blockchain” technologies on the financial services sector, open governance, etc.).
At its core, the internet is a highly distributed system that was designed to be highly resilient against attack and is therefore beyond the control of any single actor. As it matures, it is evolving in ways that are “spontaneous, autonomous, self-healing and wholly distributed.”17 A new ecology of data assets is emerging that provides the means for secure and trustworthy communications and for entirely new solution-sets related to the digital identity of people, devices and institutions. Blockchain technologies (e.g. those applied by crypto currencies such as Bitcoin), digital exchanges and “self-signing” ledgers and contracts are early examples of how the creation and exchange of value could reliably occur in a highly distributed manner.18
From an innovation perspective, these highly distributed technologies directly challenge conventional and centralized commercial, legal and governmental power structures. “What once required the authority of a central bank or a sovereign authority can now be achieved through open, distributed crypto-algorithms without regard to borders or human intervention,” says John H. Clippinger, Executive Director of the technology non-profit IDcubed.org. “We are seeing a new kind of highly distributed, self-deploying, self-healing infrastructure that profoundly alters one of the most fundamental precepts of human social and economic organization – the issuance and management of identity, access rights and risk.”
The power dynamics within the “centralized versus distributed” debate can be starkly reflected in the dialogue on identity systems for low- and middle-income economies. Few deny the critical importance of national identity and civil registration services as essential for delivering on the promise of sustainable development. Millions of individuals are denied, and excluded from, basic health, education, social protection and humanitarian response services because of insufficient national identification systems. These capabilities are also vital for policy planning, monitoring and evaluation at the national and local level. Digital identity services can help eliminate inequalities and establish new efficiencies, foster innovation and extend the reach of service delivery.
Yet the question of how these systems are implemented is an area of growing debate. From the perspective of centralized sovereign states, national identity systems provide a means of delivering services to citizens and protecting their interests. From the perspective of those advancing more fluid and distributed systems, the importance of sovereign individuals (and/or groups) is emphasized, with a focus on their capacities to self-organize and deliver collective action in transnational ways beyond the traditional governance institutions such as the nation state and standard democratic institutions. A more structured debate on the comparative risks and benefits of centralized versus distributed identity systems is critically important to genuinely advance transformative social change.