When it comes to accessing health and education services for children, identity documents and personal information are important. Registering a child’s birth and giving them a name establishes a child’s right to their identity. This becomes an assertion of his or her existence in society. It also determines what other rights, privileges and opportunities the person gets to enjoy, or to be excluded from. This includes being allowed to access and participate in the range of services and benefits that they will need to construct their life and their future. For instance, being registered to attend educational services that are appropriate to their age and stage of learning.

In practical terms, identity and personal information about a child’s family, where they live and other key data are needed by every organisation and service that they will interact with. Over time, these interactions build the person’s profile and credibility in society and are the foundation for trust agreements — such as being accepted into a school, or opening a bank account.

Today, benefit and service providers are still duplicating the work of registering and validating the identity and eligibility of each of their clients. They keep this information to themselves and the individual parent or child gains no personal ownership over their own information, to be able to use this and transact with other service providers.

The information these organisations collect about what benefits each child actually receives tends to be ‘analog’, fuzzy and lumped together in averages — such as when this is reported on or used for accountability and planning. Individual children can be further disadvantaged when they are left without essential identity documents, such as when these are lost or destroyed. And their digital identity and personal information can be exploited by third parties, without much benefit to the child.

To solve these problems, 9Needs has been working on an innovation that will provide every child with their own ‘digital wallet’ that is fully owned by the individual. This will provide each child with a place ‘online’ to securely store their identity assets and important personal information. These assets can include digital scans of their identity documents, biometric data and other personal information relating to their family, addresses, phone numbers, medical records and so on.

These digital wallets can also be used to transfer and store value for the child — such as digital vouchers to access benefits for educational services with their choice of service provider. Transactions through digital wallets create irrefutable proof of any benefits being transferred to identified individuals and will allow for detailed metadata to be securely collected in ways that do not compromise the individual’s privacy. Now information can be collected in ways that this can be used by organisations to plan and deliver services that are far more personalised to the individual, predictive of what they need and that allow people to participate in making their own choices and create value for themselves. This will furthermore prevent wastage and unaccountable use of public and private resources.

The innovations 9Needs is working on are novel applications of blockchain technology — a decentralized global information transfer and storage protocol. This allows for secure, direct (without a middleman or third-parties) digital transfers of information, value and assets between identified people or entities. Many people believe this new technology offers as important an opportunity as the creation of the Internet itself.

Dr Shaun Conway of 9Needs describes their area of work as contributing towards a paradigm shift in the ways that we think about and use personal identity and information ownership: “We have all seen how much has changed already in the last 5-10 years, with billions of people creating online identities through the Internet. We have each created our own personas and detailed records of our lives, transactions and interactions with other people. But our personal identity and information have become owned and exploited by multinational giant corporations such as Facebook and Google. Then we still have to present paper copies of our identity documents and proof of residence whenever we want to enter into a significant agreement with an institution! As the agents of our children’s future, we must now consider very carefully how we bring children of this generation into the digital world and what this will mean for their future education, status, opportunities, security, rights and freedoms. I support the trends that are beginning to take the world towards new business models in which digital capabilities are used to dematerialize, demonetize and democratize the bureaucratic and inefficient social benefit, education and health systems that we live with today”.

The decentralized applications (DApps) currently being developed by 9Needs with support from The Innovation Edge are available for any social benefit organization to use and adapt. A digital identity DApp has been published as ID-IO (for more information and the open-source code, visit id-io.org). This forms part of a program of developing, testing and demonstrating in real-world settings how children could directly benefit from DApps and blockchain technologies.

In the next article we will show how DApps can help a community launch, deploy and run an organised playgroup for children, using their cellphones.