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Mobile technology the key to better-quality lives

Creating digital identities can make access to public services universal.

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Today, 14 per cent of the world cannot prove who they are, either because they are living in impoverished countries, or displaced. This identity crisis means a lack of access to healthcare, education and financial aid.

WHILE most of us are aware that a rapidly rising population can be a global issue, do we really know the numbers and how severe the situation is? Test your knowledge of how well you know the world by answering the three questions below.

1. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another four billion people, hitting 11 billion. What is the main reason?

A) There will be more children (aged below 15)
B) There will be more adults (aged 15 to 74)
C) There will be more very old people (aged 75 and older)

2. What will happen to world population after 2100?

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Market voices on:

A) It will continue to grow.
B) It will stop growing.
C) It will start to decline.

3. Currently, how many people in the world do not have an official identity document?

A) 100 million
B) 500 million
C) More than a billion

The answers are B, B, and C. Did you get them right?

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

According to the late public health professor Hans Rosling, the world population will stop growing eventually around the 11 to 12 billion mark. By then, the bulk of the people will be adults aged between 15 and 75 years old. This is good news as it means more children are living to adulthood, and adults are living longer in general - by 2100, world life expectancy will have increased by 11 years.

You may ask now - why would the population stop growing if people were living longer lives? Because parents living in economically sound countries are having fewer children, and this factor is balancing out a longer life span. The key to curb population is to eradicate poverty in countries where parents have more children and child mortality is high. And as we continue lifting people out of poverty - a trend that has been happening in the last few decades - the population will eventually stop increasing.

However, the not-so-good news is, there is still one population issue to be solved - the accurate identification of people across the world.

Today, 14 per cent of the world population cannot prove who they are, because they are either living in extremely poor countries, or displaced from their hometowns, creating an identity crisis worldwide.

The lack of documentation can lead to many problems, among them, the lack of access to essential services, like health care, education, financial help and so on. This in turn plunges these identity-less people into deeper poverty, creating a vicious cycle. As world population continues to grow, a global identity crisis intensifies.

What can we do? The answer lies in the palm of our hands - digital identities hosted on our smartphones.

USE CASES FOR DIGITAL IDENTITIES

Digital identities can beget a lot of positive changes in the society. Let's take a look at three ways mobile identity is transforming lives.

  • Birth registration

The United Nations estimates that one in three children under the age of five - roughly 230 million children - do not have an official birth registration record, leading to their being deprived of a range of vital services. This problem is particularly pervasive in the poorest parts of the world, with the World Health Organization putting the number without identity at around 99 per cent in developing countries.

But mobile technology is changing this.

In developing countries, mobile birth registration is improving how birth data is collected, verified and stored. In Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, newborn babies are given a bracelet with a unique QR code that can be scanned via a mobile app, automatically entering the baby's registration details. The information is then sent to a server to create an official birth certificate of the baby.

In another case, we are working with the Ministry of Interior in Gabon to build up a biometric database for all its citizen documents, including the birth certificate, national ID card, passport and driver's licence, helping the government to correctly register all its citizens - adults and children alike.

Even in Singapore, the government has tapped smartphones and apps for birth registration.

  • Refugee identity crisis

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide; and many of them have been away from home for more than two decades, living a ghostly existence. Not only that, 20 million people are being displaced every year, due to war, extreme weather and natural disasters.

As these refugees are often forced to flee in a hurry and tend to live a nomadic life, many of them do not possess an official identity document, which may have been destroyed, lost, or stolen on their journey. For this reason, refugees are at great risk of facing identity-related barriers that further exclude them from the job market or basic health care services and society at large.

When refugees are properly identified, not only do they feel empowered, it also enables humanitarian organisations, governments and local communities to process information in a more accurate manner; bring structured programmes and aid to the refugees, and help them assimilate into society faster.

For example, in Malaysia, UNHCR has started issuing photo ID cards that can be scanned and verified via a mobile app called UNHCR VERIFY-MY. The objective is for law enforcement and humanitarian agencies to determine if a document is genuine, and if the refugee is who he/she claims he/she is.

  • Access to government services and online transactions

One of the primary goals of creating mobile identities is to give the citizens easy access to digital public services, from the comfort of their homes. This takes collaboration among the governments, banks and mobile operators to achieve.

In recent years, governments and technology experts have started looking into creating smartphone-based digital identities for the population.

In this case, users can create a 100 per cent verifiable digital identity - which can be hosted on the smartphone; access digital services on-the-go with a single log-in instead of switching between multiple apps; and easily approve transactions on the platform. Such a digital identity scheme enables users to access a slew of services, including those of telecoms, financial, health care and HR, without having to fill out a detailed form each time.

The Belgian government is among the first to explore such a programme country-wide. The nation's itsmeĀ® scheme has enrolled 350,000 users and securely processed a million transactions every month for both public and private digital services. I believe Singapore is exploring something similar as well.

In conclusion, we are now entering an exciting era in which everyone will soon be safely and accurately identified digitally. Not only does digital identity make people's lives easier, it also holds tremendous promise for anthropologists, economists, public-health professionals, humanitarian organisations and more, to have a better picture of the world we live in and subsequently, create genuine social change.

  • The writer is Singapore country head of Gemalto and Asia president of its Government Business Unit