Anthropology meets digital identity in the last mile
Guest post by Ken Banks, Head of Social Purpose at Yoti
We invited Ken Banks, an award-winning social entrepreneur, mobile technology and global development expert and author, to write about the importance of anthropology to tech design and development, and his current work as Head of Social Purpose at Yoti.
One of the reasons I’m most excited about attending the Anthropology + Technology Conference is getting the chance to meet technologists and developers interested in better understanding the context of their users. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your technology is if you don’t first understand the geography, the culture, the context, the language, the problem and the people you’re trying to help. Anthropology helps us refocus the discussion first and foremost on understanding the people and their problems first.
The author at work in Malawi evaluating a technology project. Photo: CARE UK
Anthropology’s tech-fuelled renaissance
Just as large international development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people just go by a different name – customers.
Over recent years, anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do. The emergence of conferences such as the inaugural Anthropology + Technology Conference 2019 that many of us will be attending in Bristol next month is testament to the increasing interest in, and influence of, anthropology in areas of technology and innovation.
And rightly so. It’s widely recognised that projects and products can succeed or fail on the realisation (or not) of their relative impacts on target communities. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working in hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large international development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people just go by a different name – customers.
Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks
Innovation out of necessity…is always the most interesting kind of innovation.
The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $50 smartphones), but is also due in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spent increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets), mobile money and phones which hold multiple SIMs.
Mobile power in Uganda, 2007. Photo: Ken Banks
If you thought that portable battery backup units (such as Juice Bank) were Western innovations, you can also think again. Mobile phone owners in the developing world were using batteries as backups — albeit immobile ones such as car batteries — long before they started appearing on our high streets. When you have a phone but no electricity at home, this is a great solution. Innovation out of necessity, such as this, is always the most interesting kind of innovation.
Anthropology meets digital identity
We’re deeply committed to helping digital identities become a force for social good…and, not surprisingly, we’re very much applying an anthropological approach to those efforts.
After 15 great years I closed my company, kiwanja.net, and in 2018 joined Yoti as their Head of Social Purpose. Yoti is a London-based technology company on a mission to become the world’s trusted identity platform. Founded in 2014, Yoti is a team of approaching 300 people with headquarters in central London, an office in India and a growing presence in the USA. Our primary offering is a free digital identity app that gives you a simple and secure way to prove your identity, online and in person. You can use Yoti to prove your age, verify the identity of people you meet online, prove who you are to businesses and log into websites without passwords.
Along with our work with businesses, we’re also deeply committed to helping digital identities become a force for social good. In pursuit of this we’re working with the humanitarian and non-profit communities to help them deploy appropriately-designed digital identity solutions in their work. We’re also looking to better understand 21st century identity concerns and opportunities among communities in developing countries, and supporting local innovators, researchers and civil society in their pursuit of solutions to local problems that matter most to them.
And, not surprisingly, we’re very much applying an anthropological approach to those efforts. Most of the current research begins with the technology and works its way down to the people who use it, an approach which has given us something of a knowledge deficit. What we’ve been missing is an understanding of why people might want a digital identity, how they interpret or understand digital identity, their concerns and what tools and approaches might be missing in their local context.
Our Fellowship Programme in particular aims to support local efforts to answer these questions. Last week we announced our first cohort of Digital Identity Fellows, three individuals in Argentina, South Africa and India looking to better understand critical issues of exclusion and human rights in digital identity in their countries.
We’re also working on a low-tech, simple, offline digital identity solution called Yoti Key for users in last mile, grassroots settings. Conversations with people on the ground very much informed our decision to develop it, and the direction we took. And later in the year, our toolkit and innovation challenges will seek to support those closest to the problems to find technically and culturally-appropriate solutions.
Our simple, offline Yoti Key solution. Photo: Yoti
The Yoti Digital Identity Fellowship Programme is one of the signature activities from our new Social Purpose Strategy, which has an unashamed grassroots focus. If you’d like to talk more about digital identity and how we’re working to solve digital identity challenges from the ground up, drop me an email and let’s grab coffee on October 3 at the Anthropology + Technology Conference 2019 in Bristol.
Ken Banks is Head of Social Purpose at Yoti. He is an award-winning social entrepreneur, mobile technology and global development expert and author, a PopTech Fellow, a Tech Awards Laureate, an Ashoka Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. In 2013 he was nominated for the TED Prize and in 2018 he was appointed Visiting Fellow at the prestigious Judge Business School in Cambridge.