Subhashish Bhadra
Principal, Investments

State of Aadhaar initiative enters a new phase

November 18, 2018

Dalberg continues a legacy started by IDinsight, expands human-centric, digital identity research in India

Identity has become an important public policy consideration globally with the United Nations SDG 16.9 calling for legal identity for all by 2030. In the past decade alone, more than 110 countries have implemented new ID systems or upgraded existing ones.

During the same period, Aadhaar, India’s digital identity system that has enrolled more than 1.2 billion people, has dominated conversations on the subject. The scale and ambition of the program, the innovative design features, the impact on the ground, the legal proceedings, and the stories of both empowerment and exclusion have all captured global attention.

When Omidyar Network first began to learn about and invest in digital identity two years back, we were surprised by the lack of rigorous, data-driven research on what is arguably one of the most pressing issues in India. Such data is important to design policies that empower and protect individuals in the digital age and to achieve Good ID. With this objective, we supported the State of Aadhaar initiative, anchored by IDinsight.

In the past two years, IDinsight — an organisation committed to using rigorous data and evidence to improve public policy — has contributed significantly to our shared knowledge on the subject.

In the first year, the team painstakingly collected all publicly available information about Aadhaar, to bring out the State of Aadhaar Report 2016–2017. This voluminous report provides an encyclopedic overview of all that was known about the program at that point.

Even after this, IDinsight found that much was still unknown. In particular, the issue of people being excluded from services (because of errors with the system or lack of a particular form of identification) stood unaddressed. We heard undeniable reports that exclusion was happening in communities and yet we saw no rigorous evaluation of the extent and reasons for such exclusion. IDinsight decided to conduct what is, till date, the largest household survey on Aadhaar, interviewing nearly 3,000 households that are representative of 158 million Indians living in the rural parts of three major Indian states. This served as the foundation for IDinsight’s State of Aadhaar Report 2017–2018, which provided rigorous and comparable estimates of exclusion across three states.

The study also provided a wealth of information about issues like database accuracy, residents’ Aadhaar-related preferences, and the role of Aadhaar for financial inclusion. A summary of the findings of the survey can be found on our blog.

The IDinsight team produced these two studies while upholding the highest levels of transparency and integrity. For example, the entire dataset and questionnaire are freely available online for other researchers to access and use. The team has also curated and shared a treasure trove of information through the State of Aadhaar website. The team’s entrepreneurial spirit, intellectual honesty, and perseverance in the midst of a passionate discourse has seen this initiative grow over the past two years. Omidyar Network would like to thank Buddy Shah, Ronald Abraham, Elizabeth S. Bennett, and the entire IDinsight team for their leadership.

At the end of our contractual relationship with IDinsight earlier this year, we sought proposals from several organizations to host the next two years of the State of Aadhaar initiative. We received many compelling proposals, each with a different vision for the future of the initiative. We are excited to collaborate with Dalberg to carry forward the excellent work begun by IDinsight. Dalberg is, of course, a name that needs no introduction — the group has led many high-impact projects globally. In India, Dalberg has already made a mark through research that sits at the intersection of technology and society. For example, its path-breaking Privacy on the Line study helped dispel the notion that ordinary Indians do not care about privacy.

We are excited by Dalberg’s plans for the State of Aadhaar. The team, led by Gaurav Gupta, Swetha Totapally, Priti Rao, Jasper Gosselt, and Petra Sonderegger, will expand the breadth and depth of the survey, in order to provide the data backbone for a nationwide conversation on Good ID. This change will manifest itself in three ways:

  • Two nationally-representative surveys to provide more granular data on Aadhaar at the state level. The Dalberg team will use two surveys to achieve this objective. Firstly, they will use an existing national panel of 170,000 households to ask the most critical questions, such as access to basic services. Secondly, they will ask more detailed questions from over 10,000 respondents in more than a dozen states.
  • Qualitative research using a human-centred design methodology, which is a research approach that focuses on users, their needs, and requirements. This will help us understand in richer detail the experiences of the people Aadhaar is meant to serve.
  • External advisory and technical panels to ensure the rigor of research and to represent a wide range of perspectives in the research.

Such a multi-method approach will allow us to get statistically rigorous and specific information, while probing deeper into the experiences of individuals in a human-centric way. Dalberg will also continue the transparency that IDinsight brought into the research. The full questionnaire and dataset will be put out in the public domain. Put together, these different pieces of research will help bring more richness and data to the discourse around Aadhaar. This is, of course, an ambitious task, but one to which Dalberg will bring a range of different capabilities across Dalberg Advisors, Dalberg Design, and Dalberg Research.

We are grateful to have partnered with IDinsight over the past few years and are excited about the direction that Dalberg will take with this initiative.

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