The 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami resulted in the loss of millions of paper records. From land registry documentation to birth certificates. And there were no copies. The added to the headaches of people trying to reestablish their lives. And it added to the complexities of land issues already made difficult by where once was farmland, now was part of the sea. But it is conversations with community members about their children I remember even more. Without birth certificates the children were unable to register for school, see a doctor, and so on.
“It is like because they don’t have papers, they don’t exist, even though they sleep in our arms every night.”
I don’t remember all the details of how we helped families re-establish their identity documentation. We had some amazing experts working on that. But I do remember it taking a long time and requiring ‘building an evidence’ case of people, stories, and other bits and bobs to present.
This challenge was and is not unique to the Tsunami. Everyday, versions of this conversation happen in many different contexts – from natural disasters to conflict to stateless people. Identity documents are critical for our lives, especially ones recognised and issued by a government.
In today’s world, aid agencies do a lot more work digitally – from registration to tracking our interactions with people to storytelling. In many situations we have a ‘history of interaction’ with someone who may not have a formal, state issued identity document. Unfortunately, we as aid agencies tend to hoard and control this information. And many agencies will work with the person or family and each agency will have its own ‘history of interaction’.
These histories and records, if collectively accessible to the person about whom they are, could be extremely useful in helping the person establish or re-establish formal, foundational identification documents. And foundational identity documentation, like a birth certificate, has far reaching and long lasting impact for a person.
This can be one aspect of the case for data portability. For the person we seek to serve to have access to the data we have about them. For them to use that data how they wish, without our involvement unless they ask for it. And for them to be able to ‘hold’ this data in something like a ‘digital wallet’ enabling them to have pieces of information from many different agencies all in one place.
The choice is up to us.
Photo by Liam Truong