In this episode, we’re looking at how technology, legal reform and mass catch up birth registration activities can help countries improve their progress towards their goals.
Technology and teamwork can help reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 of legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030.
Digitech Development, a division of French firm Digitech, has developed a way to securely send birth notification details by SMS to the civil registry, allowing birth registration even when 2G connectivity is unavailable.
The company began by scanning documents in French town halls in the 1990s.
Digitech Development’s Margaux Audet explains how the technology is working in Côte d’Ivoire and how the firm was part of a consortium that carried out a mass ‘catch up’ exercise in the Democratic Republic of Congo which registered the births of 2.4 million primary school children who had not been registered following their births.
Find out more about the ID 16.9 Podcast and the importance of legal identity at https://id169.com
Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey at Biometric Update https://www.biometricupdate.com
FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to the ID 16.9 podcast where we dissect the issues around the United Nations Sustainable Development goal 16.9 for legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030. Are the more than one billion people in the world without legal identity going to get it by 2030 or at all?
I’m your host and producer, Frank Hersey.
In this episode, we’re looking at how technology, legal reform and mass “catch up” birth registration activities can help countries improve their progress towards their goals.
We heard earlier in the series from OpenCRVS, which provides an open source approach to creating digital civil registry and vital statistics services.
Here’s what Annina Wersun, head of community development and engagement at OpenCRVS had to say on the overall challenge.
[CLIP] ANNINA WERSUN: It’s not a one-off activity where you can spend a lot of money on a big drive and it’s a big bang kind of approach and everyone’s registered. This is establishing continuous services that need to be sustained over time.
FRANK HERSEY: And here’s Annina on the legal side of registration…
[CLIP] ANNINA WERSUN: Often CRVS laws actually act as barriers to people accessing services.
FRANK HERSEY: And finally, on technology…
[CLIP] ANNINA WERSUN: Technology is not a silver bullet. Technology is there to enable effective service delivery.
FRANK HERSEY: In this episode we’re speaking to another civil registry service provider which takes a somewhat different approach. Joining me now from Paris is Margaux Audet, sales manager for anglophone Africa and APAC at Digitech Development. Welcome to the podcast.
MARGAUX AUDET: Thank you, Frank, for giving Digitech and Digitech Development the opportunity to present our expertise and the different work and projects we have been working on in Africa.
FRANK HERSEY: So as you’re saying there’s Digitech and then more recently I believe Digitech Development is a newer division. So how about we start with looking at how Digitech started and then why it created Digitech Development.
MARGAUX AUDET: So thank you for having noticed that there are two entities. So Digitech and Digitech Development. So they are very strongly linked to one another. So Digitech was created in 1992.
So first it was to digitize all of the archives that different town halls or ministers had. So it was the building of tailored scanners because back in the 90s it was not something that was very common. So it was on one side the scanner, the scanner thing and also to develop the software that was able to scan, index the information. So what we mean by index is to retrieve the information and to put it intelligently into a new database.
So this is how it started. And we started working in the civil registry archives of different city halls and this is where we put our first step in the CRVS world. So as of today, Digitech is working in a different town halls, so Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille, Bordeaux, Reims, Orléans. We even work in New Caledonia where we take into account customary law, which is interesting to have the French Metropolitan CRVS law and the customary one. We also work in French Polynesia.
So since we were collaborating with many town halls, we started having some overseas governments contacting us for the expertise that we have and for also the solutions that we developed over over the years. So this is why in 2017 we created an entity which is entirely dedicated to the overseas market, to deploy and also to adjust the solutions that we that we have for each country’s legal framework, for its very tailor-made, customized solutions for each project that we we deploy. So yeah, Digitech Development was created and now we are implemented in a few countries. So at the national level we are collaborating with Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, and then with smaller scale projects, we have worked in Algeria, Morocco, DRC, Mali.
FRANK HERSEY: Yeah, so you started literally in French town halls and then with that sort of experience you’ve then gone on to help countries around the world that were not just a town hall level but a national level. We always get excited about technology, and you know we’re from Biometric Update where we’re covering technology every day, and I know that one of the tools you have is quite technologically savvy. So why don’t you tell us about Be.Bound because I know that’s in use in, well you tell me, I think I know it’s at least in use in Côte d’Ivoire and possibly Niger as well. So tell us about Be.Bound and how it works and, you know,the telecommunication side as well.
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes, so so far Be.Bound has been deployed and is undergoing deployment in Côte d’Ivoire. So of course we are looking at other projects where this savvy tech as you mentioned can be deployed. Be,Bound is a multi-component solution providing minimal connectivity service between an Android smartphone app and an application server.
So the aim of this technology is to address locations where there is low to no connectivity and areas where there is no civil registry offices in order to increase the rate of life event notification made by the health center staff or village chief for example. So it is in Côte d’Ivoire used for the notification of birth or death but of course it can be used for other life events. One thing to highlight which is very important to us, it is that Be.Bound encoding and compression algorithm drastically reduce the size of data, apps and it can work on low capacity mobile networks. So it means that it’s very cheap. It is using 1 to 2 SMS to send one notification.
FRANK HERSEY: It’s software, isn’t it? So it’s something a registrar would have on their mobile phone, they’d be going out to do registrations and so the software, and it can work on its own or it can connect with other apps, I understand? And then it just analyzes what connectivity there is, right, and to decide how it sends that data?
MARGAUX AUDET: So yes if there is internet connection, either it’s 3G, 4G or wi-fi, it won’t require the sending of SMS of course, so the information will directly be sent to the database where all of the CRVS events are kept, so it’s notification. Otherwise, if there is no network, no internet connection, it will send an SMS or two and then the technology will contextualize the SMS information into the data center of the civil registry office. So it is used for example even in Abidjan where there is a connectivity but where there are not enough centers, civil registry centers. So it is given to the health center staff or else it is also used in areas where there is a no or low connectivity or where it has a very low population so it is not yet required to have a CRVS office.
FRANK HERSEY: And does that mean that it has to be encrypted or is it encrypted differently if it’s sending it over wi-fi or 3, 4G compared to SMS?
MARGAUX AUDET: So we are very careful about the security issues. So what what we do so far is that everything is encrypted. So for the details of how the encryption is built I will have to ask the technical team, I don’t have all the details about this!
FRANK HERSEY: Let’s just say it is encrypted!
MARGAUX AUDET: Yeah it is!
FRANK HERSEY: To be simplified. And so talking about Abidjan and Côte d’Ivoire, what’s what’s happening at the moment? Is it in use? How many people are using it and not just Abidjan I assume you know across Côte d’Ivoire in general.
MARGAUX AUDET: So just to mention so the contract, the CRVS contract we are working on, it is through the company Semlex. Well we are the subcontractor of Semlex to provide ONECI [Office National de l’Etat Civil et de l’Identification, National Office for the Civil State and Identification] solutions for their for the digitization of their CRVS. And so currently with Semlex we have deployed a few hundred phones and the target is 15,000 phones all across the country.
And one thing to mention as well is that the phones, it is not apps that are installed on anyone’s device. It is phones that are handed over to the to the staff.
FRANK HERSEY: So it’s only staff with special software which are using Be.Bound?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes because you need the credentials to log into the app. So it is phones that were purchased by ONECI.
FRANK HERSEY: ONECI, the Côte d’Ivoire…
MARGAUX AUDET: National identity office in English, Office National de l’Etat Civil et de l’Identification.
FRANK HERSEY: There we go. So if we just look at an example, say maybe not in Abidjan, somewhere more remote, a mother gives birth to a baby, how how would she interact with Semlex or with community health workers to go through this stage?
Where would she meet them? Would it be in a health setting, do they travel to villages and how did the information get processed? So it’s sent, we know how it gets sent, text or via internet, and how would she end up going from giving birth to getting a birth certificate for her child?
MARGAUX AUDET: Okay, so the objective in a remote location is to have a health center staff such as a midwife or for example a village chief with the phone. They will notify the birth. There are very little information that are required. So the place of birth, so for example, the health center, there is a whole list of health centers on the app. The time, the day, the name of the mother. The name of the father is not required. It’s not mandatory. You can put it of course but it’s not mandatory. Then you can put many many information such as the birthplace of the mother or where she lives etcetera. But it’s not mandatory.
And then once the steps have been processed it will send either an SMS or directly through the internet the information to the national database. So it’s a notification, because it’s not magical. You do not have the birth certificates right away. The objective is to reach the highest number of events and not to miss one. So then the family will have to go to the civil registry office with the number that was given to her to get the birth certificate.
FRANK HERSEY: And that could be a local, like the nearest local center, that would all be equipped to give the certificate, and the certificate would have the equal weighting compared to a certificate got through a more traditional method. It’s the same?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes. And we have also put in place some QR code to have more security for the different official documents. Just to mention also because we are doing the offline sending of data to which the ones that are behind. So we also put in parallel, we built the solution to manage all of the city registry events in the different town halls in Côte d’Ivoire. So everything is complementary.
FRANK HERSEY: So that would be other things such as marriage and divorce?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes. So our solution, City Web, EveLiN, it is installed in each city hall so everything has been done according to the Côte d’Ivoire legal framework and each registrar can do the birth, death, marriage, divorce, adoption, legalization. Well in the case of France change of name, change of sex. So all of the civil registry picture. So all of the events. Yeah, everything is is taken care of.
FRANK HERSEY: So I suppose you’re approaching the problem in in a couple of ways you’re digitizing existing archives, your projects around the world, and then you’re also creating new digital records as well. So you know, new records for marriage, divorce, adoption and birth registration have been created digitally from the beginning. So it’s a growing digital civil registry?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yeah. So the objective is to take care of the backlog so all of the archives that are sitting in buildings, so just to scan them, index them, retrieve all of the information from these documents with our technology and then to export all of this information into a new CRVS database.
FRANK HERSEY: Because I understand you’ve been doing that work in Mali and why was it important to do that in Mali?
MARGAUX AUDET: So this was a few few years ago already. So we’ve done some digitization work in Mali. So it was about all of the dematerialization process and to do a pilot which would have been afterwards a national project but due to some political circumstances unfortunately did not happen.
FRANK HERSEY: But I suppose in a way it creates a secure backup of a country’s archives, the country’s civil registry in case there are issues on the ground.
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes.
FRANK HERSEY: So we were talking about Côte d’Ivoire, what has been the project in Niger, because I understand you’ve working in Niger as well?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes. In Niger it’s a project that is that is funded by the EU and which is piloted by UNICEF. So the project we are working on is to do the modernization of Niger civil registry management system for the General Directorate of Civil Registry, Migration and Refugees. So the objective of the work is to implement a central digital civil registry in accordance with applicable law with the management of unique identification number as the core of the population register.
So the solution will be deployed as a priority in the capital. Actually my colleagues are going to Niger every three weeks at the moment almost to assist the civil registry officials. So it’s as I mentioned to connect the different stations to the central system in Niamey. And then the objective is to deploy this system in the entire country which will cover approximately 200 civil registry centers.
FRANK HERSEY: I noted that there’s a difference in terms of approach in that, well, we were talking to OpenCRVS earlier in the series and they are open source and I know that you are part of OSIA, the Open Standards Identity API, from the SIA, the Secure Identity Alliance. And I was wondering what the differences are there, being open standards compared to open source and why some approaches might work better in different countries or different geographies?
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes, we are. We are members of the OSIA initiative which gathers a few few governments, so mainly in Africa and also in Asia. And there are many companies as well. So from the identity world. So the objective is through this initiative is for the governments not to be vendor locked, if they ever want to change their technology provider.
So to put it simply let’s say there is a country that wants to change the providers but they have had some technology locks where only this provider can assist. So the objective is to be complementary to any type of technology. So yeah, for the countries not to be in this situation because it’s quite constraining if they’re not happy with one provider to be able to switch.
And then to answer about the open source initiative. For us, we know there are countries or governments that want to have one company or one interlocutor to be speaking with. This depends also on the, on the geography. What we have seen so far is that it seems that the Anglophone countries are more keen to exploit this area, but of course we are not close to any improvement on our side.
FRANK HERSEY: So there’s a general difference in approach possibly between Francophone and Anglophone countries in what sort of system they would like?
MARGAUX AUDET: This is our feeling from what we have seen on the field, different events or conferences.
FRANK HERSEY: I think that is interesting because I was at the ID4Africa event in Marrakech and OSIA was there and MOSIP was there and I know there’s lots of companies who work with both and countries are looking at both, but it was feeling as though there is a little rivalry perhaps between between the two approaches.
But there’s another area I’d like to talk about because an area we haven’t covered at all in the podcast is a different way of trying to reach more people, trying to get closer to the goal SDG 16.9 of legal identity for all. Because you’ve been involved in catch up campaigns in some countries. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and how they work and how the technology is part of those.
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes. So yes, it was in the DRC, so it was we answered as a consortium with there was Civipol, Idemia, UNFPA, Caritas and Digitech. And so it was a program funded by the World Bank. What we did first for this program was to assist technically the CRVS system reform process so we assisted the government for this with a project to map definition and for the modernization of civil registry at the national level. It had to be done to be able to catch up through supplementary judgements, children. So what we did is that we targeted…
FRANK HERSEY: Could you say what a supplementary judgment is?
MARGAUX AUDET: Supplementary judgment is when you have people from the Ministry of Justice that are able to give birth certificate past the legal deadline.
FRANK HERSEY: Okay. Okay.
MARGAUX AUDET: So for example, in some countries it will be 90 days in others, it will be five years old. So it depends.
FRANK HERSEY: Okay. Okay. Yes. So you were saying you were working as part of the consortium…
MARGAUX AUDET: So yes. So this is what we we did in in DRC. So it was through a birth certificate catch up campaign in schools, so pre-primary school and primary school, so what we did is that we implemented processes, IT resources, operations for the recording and delivery of civil registry documents.
So for 2.4 million children, so when we say that we delivered these birth certificates, so they were paper based and also there was a digital copy in the servers. So we caught up 2.4 million children but then not all of them came to collect their birth certificates. So this is one thing. So it was a massive operation so it ran from 2018 to 2020. So with colleagues that spent a lot of time there and what we are very proud to have achieved is that the price per child to get the birth certificate was $5 USD which is very low in this case.
FRANK HERSEY: Yes. So 2.4 million children were included in the project, but not all of them, or I suppose their parents came forward to get the birth certificates. Does that mean that they still have a legal identity created or is it just that the civil registry knows they exist? Can they still benefit themselves, the children?
MARGAUX AUDET: The ones who didn’t come to collect their certificates?
FRANK HERSEY: Yes.
MARGAUX AUDET: Yes, they exist but because it was at the end of the school year and some of them had moved to another city or village. But if they go if they go back to this place they should be able to collect the certificates.
FRANK HERSEY: So another element of civil registry is the legal framework that it works within. So how does Digitech Development help countries with that, with the legal side of things?
MARGAUX AUDET: It was only one time that we did it for this project but usually where we come in it’s after the consultancy work has been done by a donor. So either it’s funded by the EU, UNICEF, the World Bank, GIZ, well, you know all of them. And then once the consultant has seen how legally the civil registry system, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Health are organized then they write their assessment, what needs to be implemented and usually this is where we come in. We deliver, whether you can call it a platform or we deliver the product aligned with the legal framework that the consultants worked on.
FRANK HERSEY: So I was wondering what you think of looking forward with upcoming projects or even existing projects in countries, what do you think is more important or needs more work? Is it the technological side or is it awareness of the importance of coming forward to register births or come forward to sign up for ID? Or is it the legal frameworks within countries?
MARGAUX AUDET: So it’s a very tough topic. So I would say there are many priorities. So first of course it is to raise awareness for the parents, the family, to provide a legal identity to their child because the objective to be 100% birth registration by 2030 seems very, yeah it’s very far away from what we see today.
So this is the first key takeaway that I would mention. And the second one is also to improve the infrastructure. So for example you have civil registry offices. Well they would need a good internet connection or electricity, some better, to improve really all of the infrastructure and because unfortunately Be.Bound is a very nice technology but it cannot cover everything our civil registry management software does.
FRANK HERSEY: And so one last question, what’s coming up next for Digitech Development? Have you got any new projects, any new countries that you can talk about yet?
MARGAUX AUDET: So yes. So we have signed a new project with Senegal. So we will be in charge of the modernization and the development of their CRVS modernization. So we are quite thrilled to start this new new adventure with a new government.
And also we will be at the sixth conference of the African ministers in charge of the civil registry in Addis Ababa in, you know two weeks or three weeks’ time by now. And we’ll be happy to meet people that we started discussions after two years of Covid that we met in Marrakesh at the ID4Africa conference.
FRANK HERSEY: Yes, people there were talking about the the upcoming meeting, the African Union meeting so I’m hoping to hear a little bit more about that after it’s happened. Because it sounds as though there’s been lots of different development in different countries and new ideas so it’ll be interesting to hear what happens when all these chiefs of civil registry get together and compare and contrast things. So maybe we’ll be speaking to you again then.
But I’d like to say thank you for joining me today to talk about all this. So this has been Margaux Audet, sales manager for Anglophone Africa and APAC at Digitech Development. So thank you very much.
MARGAUX AUDET: Thank you for your time, Frank. Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to talk about Digitech and Digitech Development.
FRANK HERSEY: Very welcome.
There are links to Digitech Development’s work in the show notes, wherever you listen to your podcasts.
To find out more about legal identity, the UN goals and to listen to all our episodes, go to ID169.com and see if you think we’re on track for 2030.