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Inclusion by design: Creating digital identity systems for all

Louise Maynard-Atem, Research Lead at Women in Identity shares her view on the importance of inclusion, when establishing an identity system for a thriving digital economy.

The need for improved digital identity systems and infrastructure has been a pressing requirement for many years, as more businesses have moved their operations online. The pandemic has accelerated that shift and increased the focus on the need for a digital identity infrastructure over the last 18 months. This presents us with a unique opportunity to enable economic and societal value creation, as digital identity systems are the gatekeeper to access services like online banking, ecommerce, and insurance.

However, we also need to recognise that the use of technology in digital identity systems has the potential to further entrench, and potentially exacerbate, the exclusionary and biased practices that persist in society today. Simply digitising what were previously analogue processes and utilising flawed data, would be a missed opportunity to deliver systems and services that benefit all citizens.

At Women in Identity we believe that inclusion doesn’t just happen on its own. In order for identity systems to be inclusive and free from bias, the requirement for it must be mandated. There are many examples where exclusion and bias have not been explicitly mandated against within identity systems, and in many of those instances identity systems have been built which have excluded certain groups, often because of particular characteristics such as skin colour, gender, culture, socio-economic background, or disabilities.

The cornerstones of many digital identity systems are government issued documents, smartphone ownership and internet access, and often ownership of a bank account. There are many and varied reasons why individuals many not have any, or all, of these items, but it is essential that any digital identity solution is accessible to all of these groups, and does not cause them to be further excluded from the opportunities that such technology-driven solutions may become the gatekeeper for. In the physical world, we would never erect buildings that weren’t accessible to all (features like wheelchair ramps are mandatory). We need to ensure we are mandating equivalent accessibility in the digital world.

Establishing an inclusive identity system requires an exclusion risk assessment and explicit strategies to ensure access to identification for all, with particular attention to groups that are at higher risk of exclusion, such as remote and rural residents, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, marginalised women, and girls, and those with low technical literacy.  As part of the planning process, decision makers should also carefully consider the exclusion risks of formalising or increasing identification/authentication requirements for different transactions.

What we are observing is a move towards identity trust frameworks being developed around the world, where the need for inclusion and testing for bias is being explicitly called out. At Women in Identity we are currently carrying out a piece of research that seeks to understand the societal and economic impact exclusion in the context of digital identity within the financial services sector.

This research will inform the creation of a code of conduct, designed to help solution providers identify and mitigate potential areas of bias and exclusion in digital identity product design, to ensure that the industry is building products that work for everyone, not just the select few. The work streams in this research include:

  • Summary of problem statement and evidence – consolidation of existing work and research into inclusion in identity systems (with a focus on both developed and developing markets);
  • Impact of exclusion – insights from interviews with experts, as well as impact on individuals from the UK (example of a mature market) and Ghana (example of an emerging market);
  • Economic value, growth & investment opportunity – A paper that frames the foundational econometric modelling that could be done to measure the cost of exclusion, and the datasets required to build out this benchmarking tool in subsequent years;
  • Code of conduct & implementation framework – utilising the product development lifecycle as a basis, key points where bias and exclusion may be introduced into systems design and development will be identified, and a code of conduct will be drawn up to help organisations mitigate these risks. An implementation framework will also be developed, to drive wider adoption within relevant sectors.

Involvement
We are continuing to fundraise for the later work streams within the project and are always looking for industry collaborators to get involved with the development and implementation of the Code of Conduct. Please get in touch with Women in Identity (via Louise Maynard-Atem) if you would like to discuss being a part of this work.

About Women in Identity

Women in Identity are a not-for-profit, volunteer-led network of predominantly (but not exclusively) women working in the identity sector. Through engagement and outreach they support nearly 2000 members worldwide to bring their own value to the world of identity, and through a research agenda are working to bring greater inclusion to the digital identity sector.