Author : Nisha Holla

Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 19, 2020
Digital public goods can be developed for rapid pandemic assessment and response. India’s experience with COVID-19 must be recorded and analysed, and systems developed based on this analysis.
Democratising technology for the next six billion The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdowns across the world have only accelerated the trends of digitalisation, mobile and internet penetration, and technology adoption. In 2000, barely 413 million people were internet users; <1> today, that number exceeds 4.5 billion. <2> Social media was almost unheard of at the turn of the century; today, more than half of the world’s 7.7 billion people are active users. With key services like the distribution of essentials, education, health, relief delivery, government communications and bill payments disseminated digitally in many countries, particularly due to the pandemic, techno-citizenship is an inevitable attribute of our future. Establishing universal access to the internet, digital platforms and cutting-edge technology has become a necessity in every economy. Accordingly, there is a need to make digital rights like data privacy, personal safety, security and self-determination via opt-in consent loops, among others, sacrosanct and inviolable. <3> Beyond the individual, techno-sovereignty fuels the inevitable conclusion that access to and development of digital platforms and cutting-edge technologies is imperative for national security. Countries must build a technological moat to secure their citizens’ interests. <4> The year 2020, with the pandemic, the resultant global economic fallout, multiple border disputes, technology disputes and a flight to innovation, brings a fundamental question to the fore — how do we democratise the development of technology and ensure digital equity and protection for all?

Digital commons must be developed and deployed as a “shared resource in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.”

Democratising the development and access to vital technologies must be sustainably undertaken in the same manner that public goods or commons are built for society. Leaving this in the hands of private companies like Google or Facebook brings myriad known and unknown risks, including digital monopolisation, monetisation of private data, and financial and privacy losses due to international security breaches, with no recourse to local laws. Depending on other state actors like China for technology development brings other concerns to the fore, primarily national security risks. Instead, digital commons must be developed and deployed as a “shared resource in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.” <5> For a democratised digital common, one can envision five ideas that must serve as foundational attributes:

i. Universal and equitable access at scale, with no community left behind

ii. Active policy of inclusion with a built-in philosophy to reduce costs and friction

iii. Sacrosanct rights like privacy (right to private digital communications with encryption), personal safety and security (protection from leaks and abuse of personal data), self-determination (to opt-out of terms and conditions, to control and consent to the use of one’s data, portability), not to be profiled (to opt-out of automated profiling and bulk surveillance)

iv. Recourse to the law: In case digital rights have been abused, one needs recourse to the law. This is only possible if a citizen’s data is within the same borders where he or she is a citizen or resident. Data localisation and sovereignty is invariably the only way to provide every citizen rightful recourse to the law.

v. Supports continuous innovation on top of it: The nature of technology’s rapid evolution necessitates continuous updates and innovation. Interoperability is also essential for digital commons to serve as platforms that can support new systems being built on top of them.

India is one of the few large economies that has built digital public goods (DPG) or commons at scale with the potential to incorporate these five necessary attributes practically for its citizens’ benefit.

Uniqueness of the digital public goods model

Private industry has traditionally led the development of technology and digital platforms; the cutting-edge of intellectual property development is still primarily owned by American for-profit companies like Alphabet, Amazon, IBM, Facebook, Microsoft and Qualcomm. <6> The US government, for its part, actively encourages and collaborates with its private sector to develop dual-use technologies — utilised by the private sector for their capitalistic endeavours but also by the government to protect the sovereign interests of the US. For example, customised services are provided to the US government by Google Cloud and Google Maps, Amazon GovCloud AWS services, Azure Government by Microsoft, and Palantir in the intelligence and national security realm. The US, with its first-mover advantage, has successfully exported its digital technologies and architectures to the world via the globalisation of private companies. As a result, most global citizens use some form of American digital tech every day — either an iPhone or Android smartphone, a social media network like Facebook and Twitter, day-to-day communication over services like WhatsApp, or Google and Amazon for search.

The US, with its first-mover advantage, has successfully exported its digital technologies and architectures to the world via the globalisation of private companies.

The proliferation of American technology is accompanied by unimpeded access to the data of citizens of other countries for the US security apparatus. The global digital citizen’s data flows through the data centres of these companies and is methodically collected, analysed and monetised <7> <8> — most often facilitated by obscure user service agreements that encourage these infringements. On the strength of their vast data banks, these companies have grown into monopolistic digital and data conglomerates. <9> Headway was made recently to curb the collection, storage and monetisation of individual data with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). <10> The GDPR mandates that data collectors cannot sell personal information like names, racial and religious indicators, contact information and location tags to third parties. It directs that users have to be kept informed of how their data is utilised, be allowed to opt-out of automated profiling, to access what information of theirs has been recorded, and to erase or restrict processing of their data. Previously the user signed off rights over their data to these companies by default and were enrolled into their standard terms, conditions and privacy agreements. Now, the GDPR hands agency back to the user. It places the onus on the data collector to demonstrate that they have a verifiable reason to collect the data, and not just to bundle and sell off to third parties for targeted advertising and associated services. If there is a database hack, the GDPR mandates users be notified within three days. In short, the GDPR lays out a framework that takes the transparency of digital systems closer to the necessary attributes of digital commons. It is a comprehensive template that other countries can utilise to enforce techno-sovereignty.

The GDPR hands agency back to the user.

The largest counterweight to the technological expansion of US companies is the hegemonic global deployment of Chinese technology. <11> China has rapidly developed not only digital platforms and architectures but also the underlying hardware systems used in many smartphones and other devices. The Chinese share of global exports in computers, electronics, and optical products rose from 15 percent in 2003-07 to 28 percent in 2013-17, now accounting for more than a fourth of global movement. <12> After developing their own country into a surveillance state where privacy and self-determination have been suppressed, <13> China is attempting to do the same with citizens of other countries. <14> Chinese apps like TikTok, owned by parent company ByteDance; UC Browser, owned by e-commerce behemoth Alibaba; and WeChat, owned by the multiplatform giant Tencent; among others, enjoyed tremendous growth in the non-Chinese world. This is in part due to their design and manufacturing stranglehold on Android phones and devices — after Samsung at number one, the four largest Android device manufacturers are Chinese. <15> The intelligence arms of several countries, including India and the US, have flagged Chinese apps for spyware and malware components. <16> As recently as June 2020, amidst suspicions of data proliferation and the use of data against national security, the Indian government first banned 59 and then an additional 118 apps by Chinese companies. <17> Following suit, the US government also banned several Chinese apps citing similar security reasons. <18> Unlike the American model, the Chinese government is intimately linked with the technology development of its companies and deploys them as part of its expansionist strategy. <19> Apart from apps, Chinese companies frequently provide low-cost telecommunication and other equipment to other countries. This has led to a vicelike grip on the most important communication channels, including the 5G architecture of the future. <20> The US had previously restricted Huawei and ZTE from bidding for 5G telecom networks in the US. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have also blocked Huawei from supplying 5G network components. <21> digital public goods, data localisation, sovereignty, technological expansion, GDPR, comprehensive identifier By implementing strict data sovereignty and localisation norms like the GDPR, some of these concerns may abate. © Gremlin/Getty It is clear both these models, by their very nature, cannot contain the five attributes required for democratised architectures. Left to themselves, technology built by for-profit companies in the American model may always prioritise monetisation and advertising revenues over rights such as user privacy and self-determination. For citizens of other countries, equity and recourse to the law in situations of a breach are unavailable locally. By implementing strict data sovereignty and localisation norms like the GDPR, some of these concerns may abate. But for critical services like financial inclusion, health access and education, one cannot depend on providers external to their state. For the same reasons and more, relying on Chinese technologies and platforms is also unviable.

Digital public goods in India are not developed solely by private companies with a profit motive, nor are they developed with a government stranglehold on surveillance-orientation.

This is precisely where India has designed an unusual model that fits DPG requirements. DPGs in India are not developed solely by private companies with a profit motive nor are they developed with a government stranglehold on surveillance-orientation. The India Stack has risen as an exemplar of public-private partnership (PPP), a series of volunteer-driven software platforms that form the backbone of the government’s Digital India and financial inclusion policies.

Evolution of India Stack

India Stack started by solving a fundamental issue impeding financial inclusion — a lack of a comprehensive identifier. With the launch of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009, the Indian government put in motion the world’s largest one-sweep identification system — Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique identifier for every Indian resident linked to demographic, residential and biometric data. Before Aadhaar, India faced an extensive problem with identifying its then 1.2+ billion population. Various available ID systems like driver’s license, voter ID, permanent account number, and ration card were fragmented and lacked interoperability. The country required a systematic nation-wide ID identifying the ordinary Indian citizen who perhaps did not have a bank account or vehicle to avail the existing types of IDs. As of February 2020, 90 percent of the population had an Aadhaar card issued to them. <22> India built the world’s most extensive biometric ID system and has been recognised worldwide for its comprehensive coverage, ingenuity and flexibility. Nobel Laureate and Former World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer said “the system in India is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen,” “ the basis for all kinds of connections that involve things like financial transactions” and “could be good for the world if this became widely adopted.” <23>

As of February 2020, 90 percent of the population had an Aadhaar card issued to them.

With the heavy involvement of industry pioneers like Nandan Nilekani, the UIDAI system was architected from the start as a multi-platform public utility with application programming interfaces (APIs) that can be utilised to develop products, services and platforms on top of the system. This decision proved crucial to the development of the India Stack and the DPG model by allowing for interoperable modular design. Aadhaar first unlocked new banking and payments modes. The National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) launched APBS (Aadhaar Payment Bridge System) and AEPS (Aadhaar Enabled Payments System), which residents with an Aadhaar and bank account could access. <24> The APBS-AEPS network enabled a direct-to-beneficiary transaction system. This forms the bedrock of India’s massive direct-beneficiary-transfer (DBT) system. To date, INR 12 trillion has been disbursed via DBT directly to identified beneficiaries as relief and income support by the Indian government. <25> On the heels of Aadhaar arrived e-KYC, or know your customer, in 2012. The previous problem of lack of identification in banking was solved in one stroke because businesses and banks could now perform KYC verification digitally using biometrics or the mobile OTP linked to Aadhaar. <26> With mobile penetration skyrocketing in India, the move to link mobile and Aadhaar was another masterstroke of the system. Jan Dhan, the final component of the JAM (Jan Dhan–Aadhaar–Mobile) triad, was implemented in 2014 and remains one of the largest financial inclusion initiatives in the world. It has provided more than 400 million Indians with a digitally accessible bank account. <27> The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY) launched a platform for universal access to banking, built on the unique identification system that Aadhaar made possible. Some crucial features of PMJDY include the provision of a basic zero-balance banking account for every household, a RuPay debit card for online transactions, access to credit and insurance, remittance and pension facilities. <28> Mobile banking became available on even basic feature phones. A large swath of the Indian public have never had the opportunity to avail services like these before. More than 50 percent of Jan Dhan account holders are women. <29> India Stack is promoting universal access and equity among a billion Indians. Unique Identification Authority of India, Bharat Bill Pay System, BHIM, National Payments Corporation of India, digitally accessible bank account, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Jan Dhan, interoperability, United Payments Interface, UPI, JAM architecture, Aadhaar Before Aadhaar, India faced an extensive problem with identifying its then 1.2+ billion population. © Sean Gladwell/Getty The JAM architecture democratised the access to financial services, and India made the leap beyond financial inclusion into financial integration. JAM enabled different government ministries and departments to launch essential services — e-sign enabling Aadhaar holders to sign documents digitally, <30> DigiLocker eliminating the need to carry physical documents via verified digital copies on registered mobile phones, <31> MUDRA scheme for providing small business loans for greenfield enterprises, <32> central-KYC to build a centralised repository of KYC records for business, <33> Aadhaar Pay so merchants can receive customer payments via the Aadhar biometric system <34> and more.

The JAM architecture democratised the access to financial services, and India made the leap beyond financial inclusion into financial integration.

Another breakthrough by NPCI was the launch of United Payments Interface (UPI), a novel interface using the Immediate Payment Service protocol to operate accounts in any participating bank at any time of day. <35> With UPI, for the first time in the world, money could be sent by a click on a mobile phone from one bank account to another in under six seconds. UPI pioneered the actual movement of money from account-to-account as opposed to the ledger entry and delayed reconciliation system that Visa and other protocols use. It revolutionised digital payments in India by merging various banking facilities, routing funds between banks, and enabling merchant payments on the same platform. The system brought numerous advantages to customers, banks and merchants like cost reduction, simplified opt-in procedures and the standardisation of protocol. It also paved the way for the Bharat Bill Pay System. The BHIM app was introduced as an example of what UPI could enable as an end-to-end use-case. Apps like PayTM, PhonePe and MobiKwik followed up on BHIM by integrating UPI and Bill Pay with the railway ticketing system and various e-commerce networks to create digital one-stop solutions. UPI transaction volumes have been steadily increasing, recording its highest ever in August 2020 at 1.62 billion transactions totaling to nearly INR 3 trillion. <36> The evolution of India Stack from solving the problem of identification with Aadhaar to the continual addition of interoperable modules for transactions, banking, bill payments, relief delivery via DBT, and more, demonstrates its growing value in democratising access to digital platforms. Modules for data privacy and regulatory frameworks can also be similarly assimilated, as the government has initiated with Account Aggregator <37> and the Data Privacy Bill. These DPGs are not owned by private players but managed by the government via independent technical consultants. Citizens are stakeholders with recourse to the law in Indian courts if their rights are not upheld. In this manner, all five necessary attributes for digital commons can be implemented and enforced within such a system.

Utility of the DPG architecture

In a country as large and diverse as India, financial integration was made possible using publicly owned, regulated technology frameworks that are accessible to private developers in an organised fashion with the open-API frameworks. These frameworks are generally developed in consultation with the private sector and treated as public goods, accessible to all players. Open access has encouraged competition, and spurred innovation and investments, thus delivering greater value to the end-users. The open licensing format prevents monopolies and levels the playing field.

Open access has encouraged competition, and spurred innovation and investments, thus delivering greater value to the end-users.

During the pandemic and national lockdowns, India Stack received further validation. The Indian government sent relief support instantly and directly to 420+ million beneficiaries via DBT, <38> including farmers, women Jan Dhan account holders, rural workers, the disabled, widows and other disadvantaged groups. Bill Pay enabled citizens to digitally pay for continuity of utilities. The UPI protocol allowed peer-to-peer transfers at a time when people could not transact in person. E-Sign, DigiLocker and other facilities allowed some businesses to continue operations while in lockdown. Looking at the future, this DPG architecture managed in a PPP model could have immense feedforward effects for the economy, especially in the post-COVID-19 recovery trendline. McKinsey Global Institute’s report ‘India’s turning point’ concludes that “financial-sector reforms and streamlining resources can deliver $2.4 trillion in investment while boosting entrepreneurship by lowering the cost of capital for enterprises by about 3.5 percentage points.” <39> Next-gen financial services engines have also been pegged as a growth driver for the country. India Stack has already delivered multidimensional financial-sector reforms and streamlining of resources with DBT, real estate flow management, digital payments, bill payments and more. With this strong track record, it is conceivable that this architecture will be crucial to delivering the US$2.4 trillion in investment and the lowering of cost of capital as envisaged by McKinsey. Beyond India, the DPG architecture could solve problems other countries are also facing, which the global pandemic and economic fallout have sharply revealed. In its recent report, The Future of Disruptive and Enabling Financial Technology post CV-19, Finch Capital surveyed the macroeconomic impact of the pandemic on multiple regions and estimated the financial technology enablers crucial to economic recovery. <40> It concluded that digital-only has become the new industry norm for financial services like banking, insurance, wealth management and payments across the world. Moving an entire country’s incumbent paper-based financial system to digital necessitates a massive, interoperable, open architecture like India Stack. Finch Capital identifies e-KYC as a vital system due to an “increased need for safe digital ID given volume of digital business transacted and robust solutions required for protection of client assets,” a problem India’s Aadhaar system solved and validated over the last decade. The report also identifies tech-driven toolkits for customer support, account opening procedures, loan processing and automation, developer collaboration and confidentiality requirements as critical components; again, something the JAM architecture with its multiple, interoperable, open-API toolkits has solved. Finch Capital also pegs the crucial role of artificial intelligence (AI) in achieving these objectives; a focused deployment of AI and big data analytics requires clean sets of data collated around uniform variables — like an Aadhaar identification number.

The second- and third-order benefits of the system are tremendous and limited only by the ingenuity of the implementing mind.

With this novel and validated DPG architecture, India is seemingly ushering in a new dawn of the ‘tech by all’ and ‘tech for all’ paradigm for the whole world. Interoperability and modular architectures are the key components here. These pave the way for greater financial integration with vernacular language offerings of services, flow-based lending, different assistance paradigms, including ‘vernacular voice assistants’, introduction and bundling in of advanced services like demat accounts and insurance schemes, new risk capital vehicles, and customisation of services tailor-made for the individual (the ultimate goal). democratising technology, digitalisation, digital public goods, financial inclusion, financial integration, continuous innovation, innovation, tech for all, tech by all, India India is seemingly ushering in a new dawn of the ‘tech by all’ and ‘tech for all’ paradigm for the whole world. © Mayur Kakade/Getty While the first wave of innovation of the DPG architecture was in financial inclusion and integration, and rightly so, the interoperable, modular and multiplatform system design forms the basis for reforms and improved productivity in many sectors (health, education, technologies, and labour management in manufacturing and construction). The second- and third-order benefits of the system are tremendous and limited only by the ingenuity of the implementing mind.

Next DPG frontier: Health and rapid pandemic response

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the faultlines in Indian healthcare. World-class healthcare is available only in the few urban agglomerates, and infrastructure is sparse in between. The country faces an acute shortage of trained medical personnel, of about 600,000 doctors and two million nurses, according to World Health Organisation estimates. <41> The pandemic demonstrated the need for a real-time information and collaboration system that can provide up-to-date data on the number of infected patients, what condition they are in (asymptomatic, mild, severe, critical), and number of bed vacancies by segment (isolation rooms, wards, ICUs, ventilator-equipped). This is exacerbated by the fact that many Indian hospitals are still dependent on manual paperwork. This situation is reminiscent of the state of India’s financial sector a decade ago — undigitised and fragmented, lacking a unified core to build a reliable multiplatform system that all stakeholders can plug into, build their own system on top of and customise to their needs.

World-class healthcare is available only in the few urban agglomerates, and infrastructure is sparse in between.

The difference this time is India has already spent a decade validating the DPG architecture that can be deployed in health. India Stack forms the basis for the National Health Stack (NHS), <42> envisaging various layers seamlessly linking to support national health electronic registries, a claims and coverage insurance platform, a centralised personal health records framework, a national health analytics platform and increased coverage under the flagship Ayushmann Bharat initiative, as India steadily inches toward universal healthcare. The NHS too will have open-API toolkits that various governments and health providers can utilise to build their own customised system on top of the public domain system. The private-public multilayer architecture will enable two-way information flow on critical parameters such as bed vacancies, ventilator usage, infection loads, availability and capacity of emergency response, anonymised patient information in an epidemic situation to gauge risk profiles, and real-time information on essential medicines and devices availability. Crucially, the firewall between the private and public layers can be designed to protect personal information while allowing for the flow of anonymised information. In the same vein, DPGs can be developed for rapid pandemic assessment and response. The country’s experience with COVID-19 must be recorded and analysed, and systems developed based on this analysis. The Aarogya Setu app has already put this in motion. With contact tracing, Aarogya Setu had indicated 700 potential hotspots in the country as of May 2020 and alerted 140,000 app users about proximity to infected patients. <43> The World Bank has praised India’s contact-tracing effort using Bluetooth and location data on the app. <44> The data collected on Aarogya Setu is extremely valuable in preparing for another pandemic or emergency situation post-COVID-19.

Forward momentum

Indian innovation on DPG architecture can serve as a case study on democratising technology for the next six billion, without commercial or expansionist interests. Indian DPGs are already deployed on a PPP basis without the expectation or design for profit. Instead, it is intentionally designed as an inclusive, accessible and low-friction platform for innovation. Many countries, especially in the emerging world, can benefit from this approach. DPGs can be designed to be interoperable and modular structures on top of which customised interfaces and databases can operate using APIs, and each country and entity can customise these architectures according to their needs. Alphabet’s recommendation that the US Federal Reserve utilise the India Stack-UPI protocol to upgrade the outdated American banking system <45> demonstrates that it is not just the emerging world that might benefit but the developed world as well. As India slowly builds up to becoming only the third economy to grow to US$10 trillion (currently at nearly US$3 trillion or INR 204 trillion, <46> pre-COVID-19 in 2019-20), the rising nation has presented to the world a new model to maintain digital equity.

Indian innovation on DPG architecture can serve as a case study on democratising technology for the next six billion, without commercial or expansionist interests.

Democratising technology with the five foundational attributes of universal access, bias towards inclusion, sacrosanct rights, direct recourse to the law and continuous innovation is essential to uphold techno-citizenship and, consequently, techno-sovereignty in this new world order driven by technology and digital platforms. The pandemic has only served to accelerate the world toward this inevitable conclusion. India is a first mover in this novel idea of democratising technology and developing digital public goods. The world must now come together with forward momentum on these five attributes to usher an era of ‘tech for all’ and ‘tech by all.’


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Nisha Holla

Nisha Holla

Nisha Holla is Visiting Fellow at ORF where she writes on ideas and shifts at the intersection of technology economics and policy. She tracks the ...

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