Government and Policy

Scaling digital public infrastructure requires full connectivity, interoperability & trust: WEF Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Scaling Digital Public Infrastructure
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Scaling digital public infrastructure requires everyone on the planet to have a mobile device connected to the internet, so their data can be collected and used for public services, according to a WEF panel.

Today, the World Economic Forum (WEF) kicked off its four-day Sustainable Development Impact Summit aimed at bringing about public-private partnerships to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

One session entitled “Scaling Digital Public Infrastructure” was billed as a discussion about how public-private cooperation could “scale critical infrastructure such as digital identity, e-payments, and data exchanges to accelerate digital inclusion and build competitive digital economies.”

Key themes emerging from the session centered around:

  • Connectivity: A mobile phone and internet connectivity are needed for every person on the planet, so that public-private entities can collect their data, and so that citizens can access digital platforms and services
  • Interoperability: Digital platforms for public services shouldn’t be developed in silos, but rather interoperable between governments, corporations, and private citizens
  • Trust: Transparency is required to show how governments and business use the technology and data, including trust in secure ecosystems through robust cybersecurity
  • Public-Private Partnerships: A closer merger of corporation and state — the WEF’s stated agenda of fostering public-private collaborations

Technologies pertaining to digital public infrastructure have the potential to make life a lot easier for billions of people on the planet by delivering educational, financial, healthcare, and other services in very fast and efficient ways.

On the other hand, these same technologies can be used to cut-off citizens from participating in certain aspects of society, like with digital identities linked to domestic vaccine passports, permission-based digital currencies, and China’s social credit system to name a few examples.

Scaling Digital Public Infrastructure Panel

All participants in the scaling public digital infrastructure session, from the moderator to the panelists, are in some way connected to digital identity projects.

  • Michele Lawrence Jawando, Moderator: Senior Vice-President of Programmes at the Omidyar Network
    • The Omidyar Network is a funder of the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), which “helps governments and other user organizations implement a digital, foundational identity system.”
    • In 2016, the Omidyar Network first introduced the concept of “Good ID,” which “extends beyond the goal of national or ‘legal identity for all,'” and “applies to all types of digital identities (issued ID, defacto ID or data trails, and self-asserted ID).”
    • The Omidyar Network is an endorsing organization of the World Bank’s “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development.”
  • Sigve Brekke, Panelist: President and CEO at Telenor Group
    • Telenor Digital ID leverages core telco capabilities and enables subscribers with a secure login to all services
  • Bård Vegar Solhjell, Panelist: Secretary-General at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD)
    • Norad is a founding partner of the MOSIP platform for Digital Identity, funded in-part by the Omidyar Network.
    • Norad is also an endorsing organization of the World Bank’s “Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development.”
  • Cina Lawson, Panelist: Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation for Togo’s Ministry of Posts, Digital Economy and Technological Innovation

The most important aspect of digital public infrastructure is the data.

Without data collection, there can be no digital public infrastructure, and that’s why it is so important for the globalists to make sure everyone has a mobile device with an internet connection — to collect their data.

What data is being collected, who is collecting it, how it will be used, and why are where issues of trust arise as the data can either be used for good or nefarious purposes by very powerful entities.

Cina Lawson
Cina Lawson

“It’s never about the technology. Everything we do is about the people” — Cina Lawson

During today’s panel on scaling digital public infrastructure, Togo’s Minister of Digital Economy and Transformation Cina Lawson drew from her country’s experience in distributing a Universal Basic Income scheme for people hit hard by the economic repercussions (due to government restrictions) as a way of showing how governments could use their digital public infrastructure to provide financial services.

“It was a scheme using Universal Basic Income, and what is absolutely innovative in that is that it was entirely digital” — Cina Lawson

“Because we are doing a lot of foundational work, the way we build digital systems does matter in terms of the society we want to create,” said Lawson.

She added that, “With the pandemic, we [Togo] were able to set up a digital cash transfer program, and we distributed approximately $34 million to a little bit less than one million individuals.

“So, it was a scheme using Universal Basic Income, and what is absolutely innovative in that is that first, it was entirely digital.

“Second, in order to improve the way that we were targeting beneficiaries, we used machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“And third, we informed every day, where we were making payment, we would inform the population in real-time.”

“When you implement mobility restrictions, if you don’t support [poor people], what it means is that you are going to let them die, which is not of COVID, but of hunger” — Cina Lawson

Lawson went on to describe how many poor people live off the money they earn day-to-day, but with government restrictions on mobility, they can no longer work, and these were the people that the government wanted to give money to.

“Oftentimes, poor people have to go out to earn their living on a daily basis,” she said.

“When you implement mobility restrictions, if you don’t support them, what it means is that you are going to let them die, which is not of COVID, but of hunger, so it comes down to the same.”

To determine how much money each person should get, Lawson said that the Togolese government collected data from its citizens’ voter ID cards, where they have to state their profession, so a person’s profession determined how much money they would get from the government.

“We used voters’ ID, because on the ID you have people’s professions as they declared it when they registered to get their voters’ ID” — Cina Lawson

“We don’t have a unique social registry, so it was very important for us to identify who the poorest Togolese were.

“We used voters’ ID, because on the ID you have people’s professions as they declared it when they registered to get their voters’ ID.

“You have to know that in a country like Togo, because voters’ ID is free, the majority 93 percent of all adults have a voters’ ID, whereas national ID comes with a cost, so only 30 percent of adults have a national ID.

“So, we had to use the most inclusive card, which was the one that was designed to be free, and that was also biometric because we want to make sure that the person receiving our financial support was a real, existing individual.”

Then, working with UC Berkeley, they used satellite imagery to map out the 400 districts in the country and rank them from poorest to richest, so that they could target the poorest of the poor.

“What we also did was that we used satellite imagery to identify the poorest areas in Togo. And with the help of UC Berkeley, we were able to rank [400] districts from the poorest to the richest,” she said.

“We are the only country which was able to pay out some people based on what a machine and artificial intelligence said” — Cina Lawson

While the scheme may have offered a temporary solution during an emergency in this particular case in Togo, the idea of a Universal Basic Income as a more fixed solution to tackling poverty runs the risk of making citizens completely dependent on the government for their livelihood.

And for the most part, a government can only give what it takes from its citizens, but in the case of Togo, the Togolese government got the money from an American NGO.

In the end, Lawson declared, “It’s safe to say that we are the only country which was able to pay out some people based on what a machine and artificial intelligence said.

“And we did that for 140,000 people, and we spent $10 million we received through the help of a US NGO, so the overall program using what I would call the traditional method, which was biometric ID, and professions, and people’s location, we were able to spend approximately $25 million and $10 million were just based on artificial intelligence, so we spent $34 million.”

“When we talk about interoperability, we are also talking about to have the world as one” — Cina Lawson

Lawson’s advice to other countries looking to scale their digital public infrastructure was to create interoperable platforms.

“A lot of countries are building their systems in silos,” she said.

“A lot of the platforms are built just serving one purpose, and our objective in Togo is to increase interoperability, both using of course technology, but also regulation, with simple explanations of how we want to use interoperability, so that when the citizens look at the government, it is one — there is one entry to any public service.”

Lawson added, “It’s never about the technology. Everything we do is about the people, so it’s very important that all DPI project be also linked with a digital literacy component that can enable us to better train our people to better inform them.”

“The way we build digital systems does matter in terms of the society we want to create” — Cina Lawson

But in order to have interoperability, everyone needs to be connected to the internet, which means everyone needs a mobile device.

“We need to find solutions to get everyone to have phones because a phone is no longer a device to have conversations — it’s your mobile wallet, it is a device where you can actually receive information, it’s a device where you can store your ID and other things,” said Lawson.

She added that digital currency was a major component in operability.

“We need to find ways that we can actually transact from country to country, from continent to continent, in a way that is very simple, that is very straightforward” — Cina Lawson

“There is one area where we really need to think is everything related to digital currency,” said Lawson.

“When we talk about interoperability, we are also talking about to have the world as one.

“So, we need to find ways that we can actually transact from country to country, from continent to continent, in a way that is very simple, that is very straightforward,” she added.

Lawson also highlighted that the Togolese government was “working with the World Bank as part of a biometric ID project. We’re working to find solutions to provide the poorest individuals with mobile phones.”

Sigve Brekke
Sigve Brekke

“The next 20 years is about digital connectivity and digital inclusion” — Sigve Brekke

For Telenor CEO Sigve Brekke, connectivity and inclusion will be the main focus of telecoms and mobile carriers for a whole new generation.

“The last 20 years were all about connecting people to voice, and then later, data services for the first time,” said Brekke.

“The next 20 years is about digital connectivity and digital inclusion, and especially in the low and middle-income countries where mobile phone is the only device you have, there are no laptops, there are no computers, there is no fixed line,” he added.

Brekke emphasized, “Today, around 1.8 billion people are using their mobile phones to monitor their health; 1.6 billion people are using mobile phones to access government services; 2.6 billion people are using their mobile phones for financial services, and more than two billion people are using mobile phones to improve their education.”

According to the Telenor CEO, there are two main obstacles to scaling digital public infrastructure.

“One, is the lack of private-public partnerships. We are struggling with getting governments in these economies to really see that the only way they can actually support their population [with the services I’m talking about now] is with digital means,” said Brekke.

“I think that there are so many areas where commercial interests and public interests can be combined. The problem is that […] most government is stuck in the past” — Sigve Brekke

“Another part is regulation. We are heavily regulated in all our countries, and I support that! But we also need to be seen as someone that can support the development and the digital inclusion in these markets.

“And unfortunately, the regulations are stuck in the past and not suited then to see how digital means can be a part of the answer to focus on the development goals,” he added.

Brekke’s said that the public and private sectors should come together to scale digital public infrastructure.

“I think that there are so many areas where commercial interests and public interests can be combined. The problem is that […] most government is stuck in the past.

“They don’t see how everyone having a mobile phone or a mini computer in their hand can be a part of serving public needs,” he added.

Bård Vegar Solhjell
Bård Vegar Solhjell

“It’s really, really important that a digital public good actually includes and empowers everyone” — Bård Vegar Solhjell

For Norad Secretary-General Bård Vegar Solhjell, inclusivity, trust, and interoperability are key to scaling digital public infrastructure.

“It’s really, really important that a digital public good actually includes and empowers everyone,” he said.

“It has to be a solution that is widely available to men and women, to people with disabilities — which is a huge group in any country — to people with different political affiliations, religious affiliations, and so on to minority groups.”

“Getting anonymized and sufficiently aggregated data flows from the digital infrastructure is really important” — Bård Vegar Solhjell

He added, “Building systems that are trusted by the public is also extremely important […] They have to be built in ways that can be trusted, and that governments invest in making them secure.”

“A third principle which is really important is that they’re interoperable with other systems that a country uses.”

Solhjell went on to say that “getting anonymized and sufficiently aggregated data flows from the digital infrastructure is really important.

“One of the advantages, of course, of going digital is the availability of data, and if you can scale that up to be at an aggregated level and be used securely, you have a huge advantage in when you’re doing planning, or policy, or anything in that country.”

The WEF’s virtual Sustainable Development Impact Summit runs from September 20-23 and is meant to run concurrently with the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

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Tim Hinchliffe
Tim Hinchliffe is the editor of The Sociable. His passions include writing about how technology impacts society and the parallels between Artificial Intelligence and Mythology. Previously, he was a reporter for the Ghanaian Chronicle in West Africa and an editor at Colombia Reports in South America. tim@sociable.co