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12.10.2003 Feature Article

A Rational Look At The Proposed National Id Cards Scheme

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Introducing a national ID card scheme would cost around $50 million for the first four years; says the Finance Minister. The Minister was reported to have also said that, the nationwide scheme would be implemented in three phases. Phase one, the report says, involves the collection of data on citizens and non-citizens aged 16 years and above. The second phase covers citizens and non-citizens aged between six and less than 16 years and, the third phase will involve citizens and non-citizens between ages of zero and six. The national ID system, according to the Minister, will ensure a successful national development and enable the government to know people living under its jurisdiction and make the provision of essential services easy. The Minister has, without doubt, made some valid points. But, one must ask - how exactly is the national ID card going to work? Besides individual cardholder statistics, what type of information would be required in a database that backed up the ID cards? Professor Ernest Dumor, Chairman of the National ID Cards Implementation Committee was also reported to have said, "information on individuals would be recorded on the National Database upon which a National Identification Card would be issued to an individual". His idea sounds great. But the problem is, demographic databases don't work that way. It should be remembered that, a database does not operate in vacuum. Because demographic data is a geographic distribution, a spatial database infrastructure is needed for the development of the type of national database Professor Dumor indicated in his statement. Does Ghana have a national spatial data infrastructure upon which the said national database would be developed? The National Economic Dialogue Coordinator, Mr. Stephen Asamoah Boateng was also reported to have said on Peace FM that, "the government would sell the data to agencies that will require them for their businesses". Yes, statistical data can be sold. But, how would he market statistical (census/demographic) data that isn't georeferenced? Demographic/census data has no value unless it can be georeferenced. Let me introduce some examples to explain how it's done. In Canada and the United States the agencies responsible for disseminating census data provide a number of digital datasets that can be input to a Geographic Information System (GIS). Census and other statistical data are provided in the form of attribute datasets coded by geographic location linked by means of street addresses, postal/zip codes and census tracts. City streets network data, utilities, municipal boundaries and other geographic features are also represented in digital form and, are used as a spatial database to which census data can be related. The dataset are used primarily with census attribute data like population, household income and employment statistics etc. for planning, tax assessment, locational analysis, utilities network analysis, business information management and emergency dispatch services etc. Statistics Canada organizes its datasets, known as Area Master Files Data, by the city block-face. A city block-face consists of one side of a street between two successive intersections. The U.S. Bureau of Census datasets, known as Geographic Base Files, is organized by the city block -i.e. a stretch of city street between two successive intersections. The above examples serve to illustrate how value is added to census data in two major countries that we as a nation can relate to, and probably learn from. The last time I checked; Ghana Statistical Service and the Census Secretariat don't produce the kind of digital data described in the three preceding paragraphs. I wonder which agencies and businesses would buy the data Mr. Asamoah Boateng is planning to sell on behalf of the government. Of what use is such data? Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom, the Minister who should be credited for resurrecting the national ID cards scheme, was reported to have said in an interview that, "the national identification system is a broad-based project, which will provide a one-stop ID cards which will enable state institutions such as the Passport Office, SSNIT, Births and Deaths Registry, DVLA, Banks and the Electoral Commission to function more efficiently". I would argue that, inefficiency of the institutions Dr. Nduom referenced in his statement, and many others in the country, is a direct consequence of the lack of the most basic human IT infrastructure that would enable those who run them to do their jobs efficiently. I guess Dr. Nduom incorrectly believes his brand of national ID cards would bring to Ghana the level of efficiency he is familiar with in the United States. It won't. First, in the US, one cannot open a bank account, apply for drivers' license, State ID, Social Security Number or passport using a post office box number. It is also worth noting that, efficiency of the US system is derived from the uniqueness of a Social Security Number system based on a geocoded data structure, and backed up by street addresses and Zip Codes. As introduced earlier, a database does not operate in vacuum. To be successful, it must be developed within a suitable spatial data infrastructure framework that provides the standards by which the necessary datasets are collected. Depending on needs, each business unit or agency can develop application systems that are supported by its own IT infrastructure using the spatial data infrastructure platform recommended by the data provider. From a practical point of view, a database is a structured collection of information on a defined subject. Based on the concepts of the nature and management of Information Technology, the infrastructure required for a national database that is to be used in development planning is more concerned with the core geographic datasets rather than mere identification numbers. Geographic datasets are inherently a form of spatial data which are commonly characterized as having two fundamental components: (1) the parameter of interest and (2) the spatial location of the parameter. Considering the national ID cards and national database Professor Dumor and his team are proposing; population, age, sex, income etc. are examples of the parameters of interest. The location is usually specified by street addresses referenced to a common coordinate system such as a national reference system or the geographic coordinate system (longitude and latitude). A third fundamental component to a geographic dataset is time, a component, which often is not explicitly incorporated into a database, but often is critical. It is critical because the parameter of interest describes a phenomenon at a given location as it exists or existed at a specific point in time. For instance, if a nation's population is changing rapidly, demographic information stored in a database may quickly be out-dated, therefore, may be unsuitable for a decision-making process that requires current status. We are all aware of the problem of internal migration in the country. Moreover, it can be argued that, once some demographic data has been collected, it is by definition out of date due the dynamic nature of population distribution. This raises two questions - (1) how often is a national database update required for a particular program or policy formulation? (2) what role would the national ID cards play in monitoring trends in internal migration? There's no denying that, many Ghanaians use their employers' post office box as their address, which per a dictionary definition, is not an address. Secondly, there is a segment of the population that list their address as "care of" a friend, a friend's friend, brother, sister or a relative in urban centers. Then, there are people in rural areas without access to post offices. Adding to this, is the problem of a clumsy house numbering system, which nobody really understands or uses. Historical documents researched for this piece show that, the Romans invented house numbering and street addresses to enable accurate registration or census of the population for the purposes of taxation and military conscription. The Roman concept has since been adopted and adapted over the years evolving into mailing address codes now used in many countries. This being the case, I wonder how long it would take our politicians and decision-makers to acknowledge what the Romans figured out over two thousand years ago - i.e. a house numbering system and street addresses are necessary for accurate population registration. Any freshman student of GIS or Geoinfomatics would tell you that, it doesn't make any sense under the Sun to issue ID cards to human beings without addresses. And, it certainly doesn't make any sense to create a national database to be used for development planning using such data/statistics. It may be appropriate to note here that, an ID card isn't an ordinary piece of card bearing a name, date of birth, place of birth, a photo and a series of numbers. It is a means of storing spatial data about a particular individual. It is therefore necessary to record the location of an individual to whom an ID card is issued. The location is usually referenced to a street address. This explains why addresses are printed on national ID cards and drivers' licenses used in many countries. If you've lived or live in the United States, you've probably changed your State ID or drivers' license when you moved house. I don't know about other States, but in Washington State, citizens are required by law to change their drivers' license or State ID within ten days of moving house, to reflect their current address. Thus, government databases are constantly updated, eliminating the need to spend billions of dollars to compile new databases. What I'm reminded of here is, the 100 billion cedis the Electoral Commission is planning to spend to replace the 1995 voters' register, and the 55 billion cedis the Accountant Generals Department is spending to "repair" government payrolls. See, this is the price for not developing the voters' register and government payroll databases upon a spatial data infrastructure in the first place. While this may provide the immediate short-term needs of both institutions, it is reminiscent of a problem-focused rather than solution-focused approach; hence compromises what should be the long-term objective of both institutions -developing databases that don't need frequent makeovers. All things considered, these types of short-term solutions have tended to undermine development efforts in other sectors of the economy. Development programs to be implemented in the country require a lot of micro level information and planning such as identifying suitable locations and target people, allocation of funds, project monitoring and assessing the results. There are many cases in the past and present in which many development programs faced difficulties in achieving the desired objectives or even ended in total failure. The reasons of failure may be attributed to misuse of funds, political influences and the lack of accurate data to formulate realistic strategies and policies etc. It is therefore important for Professor Dumor and his team to recognize that, the national database they are proposing is essentially a demographic model, therefore, should be designed to mimic all aspects of what is happening in homes across the nation. As a demographic model, the national database should have the capability to answer questions about what exists now or what will happen at some other point in time. Perhaps most importantly, it should have the capability to predict the consequences of government policies. Mr. Asamoah Boateng was reported to have disclosed to the Ghanaian Times that, "the exercise [implementation of the ID cards] would commence after the opening of tender bids". While no one can argue against private sector participation in national development programs, a simple Ownership and Operating (O&O) Cost Analysis would show that, the financial interest of the nation would be better served if a government institution implemented the ID cards scheme. In a typical O&O cost analysis, a project management analyst would analyze and compare the cost of leasing, renting or buying equipment needed for a given project, including the cost of labor required to use the equipment effectively for the entire duration of the project. The national ID cards scheme is a program that would continue until Armageddon. Hence, project duration and the technology upon which the equipment is built are the major deciding factors. It is also necessary to consider the pace at which the equipment technology is changing. Note that, whilst the software component of ID cards machines changes rapidly, the hardware component doesn't. Major brands of electronic ID cards machines researched for this article are networkable, use software packages that run on Windows 95/98/NT/2000/XP, generate ASCII files and support a variety of off-the-shelf database development software packages including Oracle, PeopleSoft, Microsoft Access, MapInfo and ArcView GIS. Electronic ID cards machines can be bought with or without computers and monitors at an average unit price of $4999.00 and $2999.00 respectively. Awarding the national ID cards scheme implementation contract to a consulting company is equivalent to leasing or renting equipment and labor from the consulting company. But in a recent JoyFM online news Mr. Asamoah Boateng was cited to have said the national ID cards scheme would be pre-financed by the winner of the bid. This most certainly doesn't make financial sense, if you're an O&O cost analyst in a Highly Indebted Poor Country. A bid winner pre-financing the project in other words means the government is borrowing money from a consulting company instead of a commercial bank. Do you think a consulting company would give Ghanaian taxpayers a better deal as compared to a commercial bank? I don't, and I bet you that, the bid winner will be laughing all the way to the bank. It is the easiest money any consultant would ever make on the backs of Ghanaian taxpayers. And who's getting hurt the most in this process? The people who are most vulnerable in our society are taking the brunt. This is a small example of why voters are disillusioned and angry with politicians. How difficult do you think it is for a Ghanaian to operate an electronic ID machine that requires only basic academic qualifications to operate? Do politicians and decision-makers think that we are all dumber than a box of rocks? We're not. There are many qualified Ghanaians out there who could make contributions in various ways to help the national development process. They don't have to be under one roof, live in the same city or country to do so. The problem is, the government doesn't know how to use this vast human resource. All we hear is complaints about the so-called brain drain. It is on record that, 25% of the IT workforce in Silicon Valley are Asians. Visit Microsoft campus in Seattle, and you'll think you're in little India. Yet, you don't hear Asian governments complaining about brain drain, because they view it as a resource, and they don't hesitate to use it. Many Asian governments have since the advent of the Internet, setup web sites dedicated to collecting and processing national development proposals submitted by their citizens. This is one more reason why Asians are making progress, justifying the notion -national development through collective effort. Some of you may not agree with some or all of the issues raised in this article. But hey, that's democracy -it works well when voters have a chance to sample different opinions about issues that affect their lives. Finally, I would like to say that; the thesis of this piece is not to advocate against the national ID scheme, but to point out the obvious flaws in the planning and implementation of the scheme. It is no good just saying that; when introduced, the national ID cards would enable the government to do all the wonderful things the Minister says. I hold exactly the opposite view - it won't. Roger Sergeant Jr. Numetu, Seattle WA USA Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Roger Sergeant Jr. Numetu
Roger Sergeant Jr. Numetu, © 2003

The author has 4 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: RogerSergeantJrNumetu

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