ICTA: Put first things first, establish a digital identity for citizens

Monday, 21 August 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Jayasri Priyalal

The recent political undercurrent in Sri Lanka has unearthed many interesting developments in the current era of accelerations. President Maithripala Sirisena’s request to Muhunthan Canagey to resign from the Chairmanship of Information Communication Technology Agency (ICTA), as one might wonder, may have some connections to the resignation of Ravi Karunanayake from the cabinet of ministers. 

It appears that ICTA has given high priority to setting up of a National Payment Platform (NPP). ICTA is the authorised agency to step up the ICT and cope with the digital revolution in the country. The agency has been set up under an Act of Parliament enacted in 2003. 

Unfortunately in the current “Y”-Palana Noodle Bowl administrative structure, ICTA is administered by an inter-ministerial committee. As stated in ICTA website; nominees to the inter-ministerial committee managing the affairs of ICTA; appointed from nine ministries by the cabinet of ministers. The 13-member committee was under CEO and MD Canagey.

The ICTA CEO and MD would have had a challenging time to choose the right master to serve; as the saying goes; no subordinate could serve two different masters. The fact remains that Canagey has been a close confidant of Karunanayake, who was tapped by former Finance Minister to provide expertise to accelerate the digitalisation process in the country. 

The outgoing ICTA CEO has justified the importance of the National Payment Platform (NPP) for Sri Lanka, in order to reap the benefits of the emerging digital on demand gig economy as reported in the print media on the eve of his resignation. Readers could assume that NPP became a priority aside many other things in ICTA based on these relationships. 

The mission of ICTA as stated on its website is to: “Transform Sri Lanka towards a creative knowledge-based society through digitally empowered citizens. Moreover, the vision statement of ICTA states: “Digitally Inclusive Sri Lanka”, hence the agency needs to keep the Sri Lankan citizen at the centre and improve the infrastructure to offer public services to the community through digitally enabled platforms, not limiting it only for payment and settlement.

As stated in the ICTA’s mission there is a clear direction to this effect; to empower the citizen to pass on the benefits of the digital revolution. Internet of Things (IoT) and the SMART Phone are the key drivers of the 4th Industrial Revolution. Therefore, one can expect the connectivity in all forms, physical and virtual may supersede the values attached to sovereignty on nation states in the days ahead. Moreover, the progressive community anticipates; citizens to be protected respected and connected with the advancement of technology. 

This article is to stimulate a discussion to assess whether the ICTA has identified its priorities correctly? Why the NPP became a pet project and introduced hurriedly to serve the community without even having provided the basic infrastructure to establish a digital identity of the citizen?

Borrowing from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author titled the article – on the third habit “Put First things First”; but reading the debates and discussions in the print and electronic media on the hurried efforts to introduce the NPP, the readers may doubt whether the Covey’s second habit: “Begin with End in Mind” had set the pace for ICTA to step up an NPP in the country. 

Establishing a Digital Identity for 21 million citizenries should be the number one priority for ICTA to realise the vision, “Digitally Inclusive Sri Lanka” and to make digital connectivity a way of life for all citizens in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, the First thing should be giving a Digital Identity, from the birth of an individual. 

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence is driving the 4th Industrial Revolution. All analogue data are being digitised and stored in large databases enabling quick data analysis with the free, fast, easy to use internet based platforms. The machines are doubling up with the computing power and equipped to respond to all human senses. Advance software packages, Application Programming Interfaces (API) are available to analyse data through machine reading provided the basic digital infrastructure is put in place. With the advance, digital technology, which is capable of recognising bio-metrics identification, enables fast data analysis through artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques. 

This author proposes that ICTA work with the Department of Public Registration and issue a new digitally readable National Identity Card (NIC) with a bar-coded identity card number to facilitate machine reading. This step should be the priority number one for ICTA; if the vision digitally inclusive Sri Lanka to take shape. Unfortunately, the members of the privileged class who are often forgetful of things may not want to introduce these steps as their true identities can be established in double-quick time. They might be equally worried about the next wave; the “Block Chain” as there are no options to erase any transaction entered be it; monetary or casting of an electoral vote.

The newly-appointed Finance Minister is keen to increase the direct tax base, to ease the burden of indirect taxes falling on the poor sandwiched class. A step in right direction to improve the nation’s finances provided the tax payers monies are spent purposefully for development, rather than increasing the perks of politicians. Recent media reports reveal a politician who failed to declare his assets was imposed a fine of Rs. 2,000. In the event of a digital identity given to any citizen, his or her wealth could be easily traced in various databases. However, the application of professional integrity and culture of honesty matters in these instances. 

One such classic example of unprofessional integrity was reported in media sometimes back, a State-owned bank has accepted a deposit of a VIP lady then, by giving an artificial identity card number to conceal the identity of the person.

The digital technology should be used to improve the efficiency of collecting state revenue; offer public goods and services to the citizens, but all precautions need to be taken to prevent money laundering anti-social activities for a privileged few to earn super profits at the expense of the sandwiched class.

[The writer, MBA (Sri J), PGD International Relations (BCIS), AIB (IBSL), is Regional Director of Uni Apro Finance, Professional and Managers Group, Singapore.]