May 2015: When Motorola’s Martin Cooper made the first cellphone call way back in 1973, he knew he was onto something big, but he couldn’t have known how important mobile phone technology would become. Today, ICT is making a huge contribution to the development of societies around the world.
There are billions of cellphones, found in the pockets of people everywhere from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and they form an integral part of the daily lives of many of us. So it should come as no surprise with these amazing advances in technology and such wide-reaching networks that the humble mobile phone has come to play a vital role in development.
Mobile phone operators have massive networks that reach vast areas in pretty much every country you can think of. They are natural private sector partners for organisations like Plan International when it comes to development. They have technology, reach and knowledge that, more often than not, we can only dream of.
Not in the picture
Putting all this together, mobile phone operators can help us with a problem: More than 100 countries around the world have inefficient systems in place for registering key life events, like births, marriages and deaths. This may not sound like a big deal, but it’s huge. Those governments don’t have reliable data on issues like why newborn babies and mothers are dying or where there are diseases or where they need to build school or health centres.
Not only that, but we live in a world in which these inefficient systems have left 230 million children unregistered and effectively invisible in the eyes of their governments. Being invisible leaves them vulnerable and can make it more difficult to obtain the legal identity that makes education, healthcare, work and travel much more straightforward.
The root of these problems lies in the fact that the systems many of these countries have in place are dated, inefficient and weighed down in bureaucratic, paper-heavy processes. For example, when a baby is born, how does a mother who lives out in the hills in a remote village register the birth? Even if the birth takes place in a local medical facility, how is the paperwork going to get from A to B and maybe even to C before it ends up in the national database?
Hopefully you can see where digitising these systems can help. Simplifying processes and making them more efficient benefits everyone, from the individual through to the government responsible for that individual. A mobile phone can record a birth and send that data to a registration centre where it is recorded and put into a system, giving the government real-time info on what’s happening and where.
Digital technology, when used as part of a complete system for registering key life events, streamlines processes, improves data quality and helps boost registration rates. Health workers need only be given phones, software and basic training before they can begin using them to record data.
Know the risks
But before we get carried away with all the benefits this technology can bring, it’s important to recognise that there are some risks that need to be addressed.
We live in an age of big data and if recent events in the news have taught us anything, it’s that it’s vital that people’s personal data is protected. Data can fall into the wrong hands and be misused while flaws in the design of systems can open the doors to child protection risks. There are many issues to think about, such as identity theft, privacy violations, targeted oppression based on personal characteristics, exploitation by registration agents, and exclusion from the benefits of birth registration if systems aren’t designed to meet the needs of already marginalised groups.
If it sounds scary it’s because it can be – if precautions aren’t taken. This is why it’s vital that mitigating these risks be incorporated into the building of such systems. Governments, development partners, civil society, mobile phone operators and more need to take note of these risks. The benefits to digitisation are enormous and the risks can be avoided with a little coordinated, forward planning.
Digital birth registration tool
That’s why we at Plan International have put together a tool for identifying and addressing risks to children in digital birth registration systems. This tool breaks down exactly how digital technologies can support and strengthen birth registration systems, what the risks are and how they can be planned for and avoided.
We want this to be as accessible for people as possible so that it can be widely used. The tool itself is a detailed checklist of what to take into consideration. Do potential implementing partners have a clear mission and high ethical and data protection standards? Is the population generally aware of the risks of digital information sharing? Are relevant laws and regulations effectively enforced?
We have a lot of experience working with governments and partners on birth registration programmes as part of the wider field of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS). Since 2005, we have helped register 40 million children around the world with activities in 36 programme countries.
Our big push now is for the digitisation of these systems and we have programmes starting in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Kenya. We are also leading a taskforce to develop a Guidebook on CRVS Digitisation in Africa, which will complement the tool and other existing literature.
Plan’s research has shown that context is critical: a one-size-fits-all approach to developing digital CRVS systems isn’t going to get the job done. Each country has its own set of needs and circumstances that must be taken into account if we are going to truly count every child and make sure they are protected while we do so.
Technology can help us achieve our development goals and, ultimately, end poverty and protect the rights of every child, woman and man. We want to encourage everyone to reflect on the last 40 or so years since that first cellphone call was made as we look to the future and all that we will be able to achieve together over the next 4 decades.