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Nurturing the Aadhaar ecosystem

Nurturing the Aadhaar ecosystem
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First Published: Sun, Nov 06 2011. 10 14 PM IST

By Hemant Mishra/Mint
By Hemant Mishra/Mint
Updated: Sun, Nov 06 2011. 10 14 PM IST
The first year of its rollout has been a triumph for the UID Authority of India (UIDAI) and its administrators. Over 100 million (10 crore) residents have been enrolled, 63 million people have received their identity numbers, and enrolments have hit their target rate of one million/day. This makes Aadhaar one of the most rapidly adopted technologies in history, and the fastest government technology rollout anywhere.
By Hemant Mishra/Mint
Very soon, India will have the world’s largest ever biometrics database, a fertile foundation for creating the myriad applications that will unleash the value of Aadhaar. While the initial emphasis has, rightly, been on enrolling residents, it is now imperative to capitalize on this success by actively nurturing the applications and solutions that will deliver value to the early adopters and fuel the next wave of enrolment. These complementary forces could be derailed by prevailing policy confusion and uncertainty, which is why clarity, commitment and direction from the very top are essential at this critical juncture.
Embracing the promise of eventual universality, numerous public and private sector organizations are making substantial investments into Aadhaar—readying an impressive range of products and services, from payment systems to public distribution. The evolution of this vibrant ecosystem has been energized by complementary players across the spectrum: from large private companies such as Visa and ICICI, through public sector entities such as the State Bank of India (SBI) and the Andhra LPG authority, to the numerous entrepreneurial moths drawn to Aadhaar’s flame. Hundreds of developers, start-ups and government officials gathered at a UID-centric Nasscom event in June; an Aadhaar-themed business plan contest hosted by the Indian School of Business’ Identity Initiative received 40 submissions last month. The leadership at the UIDAI should be proud of this juggernaut of innovation that it has catalyzed.
This is why it is troubling to witness uncertainty emerging due to the potential transition of Aadhaar enrolments from the UIDAI to the National Population Registry (NPR), scheduled to occur once 200 million residents have been registered. One has to concede that this is a long-term government decision involving multiple dimensions; what really matters is that enrolments continue uninterrupted. However, if this transition does occur, we hope the NPR continues to leverage the UIDAI’s existing institutional arrangement wherein “registrars” that include state governments, SBI and the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) subcontract the actual enrolments to certified private sector experts trained in a uniform enrolment process. This is a ground-breaking public-private partnership whose proof of effectiveness is in the numbers. That popular aphorism comes to mind here: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Beyond this, it is absolutely imperative that the Union government take immediate action to eliminate any uncertainty about the future of the Aadhaar platform, being categorical and reassuring about its long-term stability. The extraordinary evolution of this ecosystem has been driven in part because the platform is open, thereby extensible in creating value-added applications, and perceived as permanent. Those looking to appreciate the difference between a product and an open platform need only compare developments in mobile technologies: Nokia’s troubles in contrast with the emerging success of Apple and Android’s highly extensible mobile ecosystems.
Returning to Aadhaar, any provider of a UID-enabled service can use a qualified ASA (authentication service agency) to query the UIDAI database for authentication, and is implicitly guaranteed this for the foreseeable future. Authentication is conceptually simple: if a user provides his or her Aadhaar number and biometric, UIDAI will securely determine whether these match, and return a yes/no—analogous to how debit card authentication systems indicate whether a debit card number and corresponding four-digit PIN match. (And this yes/no is all that an ASA can get from the UIDAI database. Under current policy, no personal or biometric information will ever be released.)
This guarantee of openness along with the perception of security and permanence is central in maintaining application growth. If companies and state agencies start questioning the guarantee of openness, security and stability from Aadhaar, they may put their UID integration or application development on hold, in turn leading equipment makers and software vendors to divert their innovation resources elsewhere. This could ripple through the ecosystem, eventually starving it, which would be a tragic turn of events for a nationwide effort now being lauded around the world.
When nurturing a platform, expectations are everything. Solid leadership, demonstrated success and a promise of stability have built and sustained these expectations, leading private sector companies to multiply the government’s investments with their own resources and talent. Transition creates uncertainty. In this regard, we also call upon the major opposition parties to come out openly in support of the initiative’s long-term prospects, alleviating any concerns that it may falter if the current government is voted out in 2014. It might take a few years for Aadhaar’s benefits to flow down the pyramid and reach the “ghosts” that Nandan Nilekani spoke of bringing into the reality of modern India. Let’s make sure we stay on course, mitigate uncertainty, and continue to grow both sides of the UID platform ecosystem.
Ravi Bapna and Arun Sundararajan are, respectively, Board of Overseers professor of information systems at the University of Minnesota and associate professor of information, operations and management sciences at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
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First Published: Sun, Nov 06 2011. 10 14 PM IST