Challenges to digital ecosystems

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Challenges to digital ecosystems

Saturday, 25 April 2020 | Mohit Chawdhry

A bottom-up approach would ensure that the benefits of digitisation are enjoyed by all, particularly by those who need them the most

As India looks to adopt the maxim of “minimum government and maximum governance”, the role of digital ecosystems has become paramount. Such an ecosystem usually comprises an interconnected or interdependent group of people, things and enterprises which share a standardised platform and seek to achieve a beneficial purpose. They possess immense potential in increasing efficiency, reducing leakages and ensuring on time delivery of services. Starting with digitisation of documents and automation of processes, the scope of digitisation in India has now expended to end-to-end delivery of services and the creation of unified Government portals. The Government is now seeking a transition to National Open Digital Ecosystems (NODEs), which are “open and secure digital delivery platforms, anchored by transparent governance mechanisms, which enable a community of partners to unlock innovative solutions, to transform societal outcomes.”

In a Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) consultation White paper, which sets out the broad principles that would govern the functioning of NODEs, the creation of digital ecosystems is described as the third paradigm in the evolution of GovTech. Examples of GovTech 3.0 include the United Payment Interface and Goods and Services Tax Network. The key objectives of an ecosystem approach include the need to optimise service delivery, integrate data across departments and ministries, create inter-operable and modular platforms and include the private sector by allowing them to build solutions on top of Government architecture. Achieving these objectives involves open delivery systems, governance, regulations and a community of innovators and users. The White paper captures factors that would contribute to the creation of successful NODEs but certain challenges remain unaddressed.

Success in the digital provision of services is dependent on many underlying factors, including digital literacy, education and access to stable and fast telecommunication services. The development of digital infrastructure also determines the ability of users to effectively benefit from digital services. Furthermore, digital ecosystems should be guided by factors of availability, accessibility, affordability, value and trust. These factors are important as disparities in access and availability exist across multiple dimensions. For example, urban Indians are more likely to have mobile connections and internet than individuals in rural India. Women are 28 per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone and are only half as likely to use the internet. Other factors such as age and socio-economic status also determine how easy it is to access such services.

In this setting, undertaking large-scale digitisation of services without bridging these digital divides could result in services not being delivered to those who are most in need of them, thereby increasing existing inequalities. Other concerns relate to the cybersecurity and data privacy architecture required to engender trust in users and thereby promote uptake of such services. India is yet to adopt a comprehensive legislation on the same. Given the prevalence of denial of service and distributed denial of services attacks as well as ransomware and malware in the last few years, it is crucial to have in place regulations providing for rapid response and coordination in case of an attack, continuous threat assessment and analysis and regular updating of databases pertaining to viruses and other threats. Another cybersecurity challenge is ensuring end-to-end protection of data throughout the whole ecosystem. While channels and databases used by the Government for transmission and storage are usually secure, other players in the ecosystem may not possess the requisite expertise or security to prevent and respond to breaches. The breach of Aadhar database is a case in point.

The White paper also mentions its use of data registries, comprising both personal and community information/records. It is, therefore, imperative, that regulations governing the NODE take into account provisions of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, which will determine the regulatory landscape of protection of personal data. A committee to regulate Non-Personal Data has been set up by the MeitY. The panel’s recommendations will be instructive in determining how data provided by communities can be used in digital ecosystem operation.

It is also unclear how data autonomy can be ensured across such a broad spectrum of participants as India does not have a universal identifier which can be used to authenticate an individual and enable provision of services without leakages. While Aadhar is nearly ubiquitous, it suffers from lacunae in the form of ghost beneficiaries and identity fraud. Second, creating a consent framework that is easy to use, available on multiple platforms (including over SMS and IVRS) while still allowing a granular degree of control is a significant challenge.

The push to creation of digital ecosystems is a welcome step as it can prove to be an effective tool in overcoming governance deficit and improving quality of life for individuals. However, it is essential to adapt such ecosystems to the peculiarities of India. A bottom-up and inclusive approach would ensure that the benefits of digitisation are enjoyed by everyone and particularly by those who need them the most.

(The writer is a Research Associate with the Esya Centre)

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