Tracking Technology in UID Project [Series]

UID has been the flavor of the season for some time at Pluggd now.

We have talked about UID opening up to 3rd party developers, UID for school children, UID as a micro-finance platform and also some UID related leaks. The project has an ambitious punchline associated with it too:

India is slated to become the first country in the world to implement resident identification using biometric technology“.

Which makes it all the more interesting for techies like us to consider.

The more one thinks about it, the more this emerges as a problem of several dimensions, the manifestations of which we have been covering on and off. We decided to delve a bit deeper and try dissecting the basic value proposition and some enablers rather than the facets in which it can be used. Once the platform is established, it can be utilized in various ways that India has many intelligent people to think up.

The government is the biggest consumer (and creator) of data – starting from records of birth and death to information on land records. The amount of data that passes through the government is mind-boggling and we think UID is just a small step in the right direction to analyze the huge flow of information provided the meritorious executioner really dedicated themselves into doing it. We also believe that a lot of planning and thinking through needs to come before beginning the execution part even on pilot level.

Otherwise a project of this scale is liable to end up as a Pyrrhic victory; where the shortest and easiest path to victory will definitely not be optimal.

Besides, looking at the subtle attempts made by UIDAI toward bringing open development in the project, we felt the need to best serve the project by letting the business & technology readership of Pluggd.in get a hands-on view about the scope of project and allow brainstorming too (like we got plenty of qualified comments on our articles earlier!).

Lets start with some basics first (as we see it – the UID team of course will have a similar needs but surely an extended mandate).

What is the purpose of UID?

(i) Provide a Unique Identity to every citizen of India by assigning (ii) a number (or number based) identity which is (iii) mapped to identifiable characteristics of the individual (or his/her identities)and (iv) the project must be scalable for more than 10^10 (1 Billion is 10^9 – this should atleast scale for 1 degree more) for proper performance when fully functional.

Let’s ponder on first issue i.e.  Providing Unique Identity to every Citizen.

From technology perspective unique-ifying citizens is quite possible by deploying the several available tools such as biometric mapping, referencing to social media over the internet (models similar to Facebook/Linkedin) or utilizing mobile network or offline networks such as that of Post Offices & Railways etc. that build around Indians across the country.

The only issue that applies before providing such a unique identity is the primary purpose of doing so. Such as in case of Social Security No. of United States, the primary purpose was Taxation. No such clear primary goal is in place yet for the Indian project. And secondly the process of issuing the Unique Identity has to remain adaptive, easy to use, hygenic and available to upgrades and migrations as the technology & situation evolves in the future; without ever infringing or allowing infringement on privacy & fundamental rights of individuals.

For example, providing unique identities comes with its own pitfalls – the biometric mechanisms are prone to allegations of human profiling (racial / religious etc – although technically that’s a load of bull) and care should be taken to avoid these.

The key to execution lies in avoiding force-fit philosophy and vaporware, which strangely we have found to have crept in the project already upon reading the latest Scope of Work in the following two technology related tenders:

Visit the UIDAI website for more details. These tenders talk at a very high level about some “features” which do not seem to have been thought-out well enough. And leave real cool opportunities for the demons to take over.

For example they talk about the “number allocation” on the lines of SSN in the US where first 3 digits represent the state. Can we afford to do that? The answer is a NO – that’s like giving fodder to the parochial forces we see in Maharashtra etc. Our situation doesn’t compare to United States in terms of social issues at all.

Another example of pure vaporware is the mention of ‘Private Cloud‘ in the tender document:-). We tried very hard to crack this new object of research called ‘Private Cloud’ from UIDAI, which more-or-less seems an outfall of some HLBC (hairy-load-of-bull-crap) guy and we felt necessary to throw the term open to techies around who might be able to help us understand this term  – ummmmm, the Private Cloud :-).

These surely are some points to ponder for the UID team.There seems a lot of opportunity for some (read consultants) to reap millions over the taxpayers money here and yet result might turn out to be in red.

Some of the topics that we are considering in subsequent posts on UID are related to the Hygiene factor that (India) definitely should be looking at, access rights and gamut of access mechanisms for users as well as private and public companies and things like using the age – old British borne tendering process for adoption of technology (and why it might not be such a good idea).

Do let us know what you think about this! We will make sure we cover those too!

This article is Co-Authored by Pratyush & Arvind