Digitalisation of Public Data Infrastructure and its problems


Are you familiar with civil registrations? I guess there are not so many people who are absolutely unfamiliar with it. In most countries, there is a legal requirement to notify the relevant authority of certain life events, such as births, marriages and death, so called civil registration. The main purpose of civil registration is to create a legal document that can be used to establish and protect the rights of individuals; In addition, civil registration aims to create a data source for the compilation of vital statistics. One of the important missions of government is to maintain trusted information about individuals, organizations, assets, and activities. Local, regional, and national agencies are charged with maintaining records that include, for instance, birth and death dates or information about marital status, business licensing, property transfers, or criminal activity.

Managing and using these data can be complicated, even for advanced governments. Some records exist only in paper form, and if changes need to be made in official registries, citizens often must appear in person to do so.  According to a report by world bank (WHO), citizens lack knowledge of the need and importance of registration of vital events and the situation is not improved by the existing barriers. In 2009, the World Health Statistics of WHO estimated that only about 1% of the estimated deaths within low income groups are reported and just about 9% in lower-middle income groups. What is more, the registration systems in many cases are very complicated, which caused potential barriers to access the registration. Based on culture and social variance, life events such as divorce, birth of child by single mothers may be very sensitive topics in some countries. A report by UONBI states, the problem of birth notification and registration has limited the rights of children to education, health, recognition among other human rights. In Kenya, single mothers may fear stigmatisation by culture and religion settings, which cause them reluctant to share private details such as paternity. Other challenges include accessibility of remote areas and irregular migration caused by civil conflict. In its report WHO mentioned many countries with “burdensome procedures and non-standardized systems across a country, leading to confusion regarding what individuals need to do or present.”

Since last decades of the digitalization trend, many parts of our life have been digitised. People are now accustomed to the ease in their daily life, from online shopping, food ordering, car sharing to mobile banking are all on the digital system. The digitalization in public sectors has also become an inevitable transaction that largely enhanced the civil registration system in the aspects of efficiency and scale. On the user’s perspective, digitalization of civil registration brings them huge convenience, enhance the control of their own data and lower the risk of missing documents.

1Advantages of implementing eGov infrastructure (Source: White Paper– A frictionless future for identity management)

Powerful forces are transforming society—and creating new challenges and opportunities for governments around the world. Implementing digital infrastructure has become a trend in the public sector. However, the current eGov infrastructure is not perfect.  According to the article by BCG, it indicated the following driving forces as lead E-Gov infrastructure continues to develop.

  •      Rising Consumer Expectations

Mobile phones are ubiquitous—a fact that has completely altered what people expect in customer service. Consumers expect everything from their bank account to their transportation to be available at the touch of a smartphone. But as companies continue to up their game in customer service, the public sector is not keeping pace. BCG’s 2016 Digital Government Satisfaction Survey found that citizens in only 4 of the 22 countries surveyed were highly satisfied with the overall quality of government digital services. Most people found the current identity management system time consuming, repetitive and laborious.

  •      Rapid Technology Advances

The emergence of digitalization, mobile revolution and the power of big data are only the prelude of digital disruptions. Governments must respond to technological change in two ways. On the one hand, agencies, departments, and ministries must fully harness the power of these technologies to improve their operations, policymaking, and service delivery. On the other hand, they must develop regulations and policies that protect citizens from the nefarious use and adverse impacts of new technologies—think of fraud, for example, or job losses—while still establishing a framework that allows these technologies to flourish. Striking that balance will be difficult given the pace of innovation and the far-reaching impact in all corners of society.

  •      Increasing Complexity

Traditionally, government has taken a straightforward approach to societal problems, one that breaks a problem down into its component elements and designs policies to address each piece. Today that approach is often doomed to fail because the problems at hand—and the potential solutions—are more complex than ever before. Globalization is one of the drivers of that complexity. Problems in one corner of the world can quickly spread to other regions. The most intractable and complex of them—the wicked problems—have multiple causes, are constantly evolving, have significant ripple effects, and do not fit neatly under one government discipline or function. To address such problems, governments must design policies that cover multiple disciplines and that can be adapted as circumstances change—something they frequently struggle to do.

2(Source: White Paper– A frictionless future for identity management)

Have you heard about blockchain?

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, government stands as an important role of maintaining trusted information about individuals, organizations, assets, and activities. But is this the perfect infrastructure?  In recent years, people began to question the transparency of their personal data uploading to the governmental database, which controlled by government as a centralized system. People lack of control of who can view their data or who their data can be shared with. The emerging blockchain technology brings alternative solution of the civil registration database, which makes it easier for government agencies to access and use critical public-sector data while maintaining the security of this information. Characteristics of blockchain technology in civil registration can be found as following:

  •      Distributed Database: Each party has access to the entire database. No single party controls the data. Every party can verify the records, without an intermediary.
  •      Peer-to-Peer Transmission: Direct communication between peers instead of through a central node. Each node stores and forwards information to all other nodes.
  •      Transparency: Every transaction and its associated value are visible to anyone with access to the system. Each node, or user, on a blockchain has a unique alphanumeric address that identifies it. Users can choose to remain anonymous or provide proof of their identity to others. Transactions occur between blockchain addresses.
  •      Irreversibility of Records: Once a transaction is entered in the database and the accounts are updated, the records cannot be altered, because they’re linked to every transaction record that came before them. Recording on the database is permanent, chronologically ordered, and available to all others on the network.
  •      Computational Logic: Users can set up algorithms and rules that automatically trigger transactions between nodes

3(Source: McKinsey & Company. Using blockchain to improve data management in the public sector.)

Will blockchain transform the public sector?

Based on the enormous potential of blockchain technology, it has began to saturate into public sector in various spaces. In Estonia, the government is implementing a technology named Keyless Signature Infrastructure (KSI) to safeguard all data. Electronic health records of all Estonian citizens are managed using KSI technology. Digital certificates are another use case which is seeing a lot of traction in the government and academics world. DNV GL, a global quality assurance and risk management company, in partnership with Deloitte EMEA Blockchain Lab has implemented the first live blockchain solution in the certification industry and has transferred all its 90,000 certificates to a private blockchain. The Australian government-owned Australia Post has unveiled plans that it will conduct tests through digital voting via the blockchain technology in a bid to reduce costs and improve efficiency of parliamentary election. Academic certificate recording system by The Ministry for Education and Employment of Malta, digital diplomas to over 100 graduates by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the blockchain based mobile app by The University of Melbourne to store and share academic credentials, are examples that clearly demonstrate how government institutions are embracing and relying on blockchain for tamper-proof record-keeping of digital certificates.

The blockchain sector itself is making moves into the eGovernance space as well. Interesting new developments like the Vostok Blockchain have emerged. These solutions have been designed keeping in need the needs of public institutions. Vostok is a private, decentralised and PoS based blockchain that leverages its inherent characteristics to offer public institutions security, privacy and great deal of scalability. They have also introduced a ‘Vostok System Integrator’ which can be used to integrate blockchain into public administration processes like land registries, governmental records, identity management, benefits distribution, tenders and real estate transactions etc.

Several countries and states such as Sweden, Ghana, and Georgia in USA are exploring blockchain-based solutions for digitizing registration of land and property transactions. Swedish government officially start using blockchain to register land and properties in 2017. Land Commission of Ghana and Dubai Land Department are also adopting blockchain to record all real estate contracts, including lease registrations. State governments like the one in Georgia, USA, are using blockchain to register land titles and validate property-related government transactions. The blockchain-based system boosts land title transparency, reduces the prevalence of fraud, and brings significant time and cost savings in the registration process. The Illinois Blockchain Initiative has announced its intention to create a secure, ‘self-sovereign’ identity for Illinois citizens during the birth registration process.

5Application of blockchain by government around the world (Source: Berryhill, J. New OPSI guide to blockchain in the public sector – Observatory of Public Sector Innovation)

How to implement a successful eGov infrastructure?

As “Rome doesn’t build in one night”, implementing a new digital infrastructure is often full of challenges. Before implementing the blockchain technology in the public sector infrastructure, decision makers need to evaluate whether it is the right time to do so. There are existing theories which can help public sectors assess their infrastructure. According to the interoperability theory introduced by the the Yale university researcher Demetrios Sarantis, the e-Government implementation can be assessed by The Government Interoperability Maturity Matrix (GIMM). In this theory, it highlighted that before an organisation start restructuring processes and changing its procedures, initially it needs to comprehend its current situation in relation to government process interoperability after that it can sensibly begin to move towards its future situation. Interoperability has shown up as a principle in the conception and deployment of the e-Government initiatives, and the interoperability frameworks have been the tool for implementing the principle. Personally, I highly value the concept of GIMM. Disruptive technology such as Blockchain technology is inevitably a treasure for the eGov infrastructure. But it is a big step for organizations change their procedure.  Adopting the interoperability framework can deliver a tool for organizations to evaluate the current situation and then decide what is the most suitable strategy for them.

With the emergence of new technology like the Vostok System Integrator, the transformation to digital recordkeeping can be conducted in a more organised and efficient manner. eGov is tempting enough developers like Vostok to design custom solutions for public data infrastructure. Such type of blockchains ensure immutability of records, provide secure access control and guarantee high speed of transactions so that the work load of government can be handled. In that sense we are already well on the road to implementation.

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