Computerworld Honors 2013: ID program empowers citizens in India

Government program, the 21st Century Achievement Award winner for economic development, uses biometrics to assign unique identity numbers, allowing residents of India to participate more fully in society.

Computerworld Honors medal

An estimated 400 million Indians cannot prove their identity. As a result, they're shut out of countless opportunities. They cannot access educational programs, open a bank account, apply for welfare benefits or seek higher-level employment. Lack of identification is also problematic for the government, because as much as 40% of the $40 billion it directs yearly toward helping these individuals doesn't reach the intended beneficiaries.

The Indian government, however, has found a solution to this problem: use biometrics to provide everyone with a method of personal identification.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) launched its innovative Aadhaar program to give all residents the ability to prove their identity through a unique identity (UID) number tied to their biometrics.

To do this, the UIDAI photographs individuals, scans their irises and collects their fingerprints. The data is uploaded to a central repository, where an algorithm checks whether each individual's biometric data already exists in the database. If no duplicate record exists, a unique Aadhaar number is sent to the resident by mail.

The system can compare each set of biometric data to existing records in just minutes, and the biometric search and deduplication process can handle up to a million enrollments daily.

Once a UID number has been assigned, it is integrated with the government's National Payments system as well as registered cellphone numbers, enabling payments to be made to UID-linked bank accounts through mobile phones and one-time passwords. The government is also working with banks to establish a network of micro-ATMs equipped with fingerprint readers so residents in underserved rural areas can access banking services.

The UIDAI went live with Aadhaar on Sept. 30, 2010, and enrolled more than 235 million people during the program's first two years of operation. Its goal is to enroll 600 million people -- half of India's population -- by 2014.

Aadhaar is more than a technology program that collects biometric data from residents. It is a transformative initiative that will allow all Indian residents the opportunity to participate more fully in society. Having a UID number allows residents, particularly those who previously couldn't prove their identity, to access services and benefits that had once been out of their reach. The program also helps the government eliminate fraud and misdirected welfare spending by ensuring that benefits are received by the intended recipients. Moreover, Aadhaar gives the Indian government a more accurate demographic picture of communities, which allows officials to allocate spending, resources and personnel where they are needed most.

Next: Mobile money expands banking services in Kenya

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Read more about the 2013 Computerworld Honors Laureates.

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