Digital India: A potentially transformative opportunity

Some projects seem transformative from their inception. Digital India appeared one of those to me in 2001 (yes that is right) when I first participated in Media Lab Asia project that was started by Government of India with Media Lab of MIT. The need and potential of digitalization was obvious even that time. As digitalization continued disrupting one after other industries across the world, it became even more obvious that countries like India may be transformed by adopting digital in more transformative ways than most developed countries. This may finally be the technology that can help in connecting needs of Indian people to resources even in the remotest parts of the country.

Current Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi launched the new incarnation of Digital India project with all the fanfare that is associated with his projects. This project is being lead by Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad who is current IT Minister. It is definitely receiving good amount of attention. It has also created lots of hope among people.

Until recently (Sept 5, 2016) I did not get an opportunity to get a closer look at the project. At the Digital India event organized at the VLDB conference in Delhi , finally I got a chance to know many technical and social ideas that are being explored under this project. With a project like Digital India, one needs to go beyond all the hype to understand its power as well as challenges. After that event, I got a chance to visit many places and talk to many people on this topic, including ‘Mohalla Clinics’ launched by Delhi Government under the leadership of Mr. Arvind Kejriwal. The most clear message is that there is excitement and expectations from Digital in India.

The most important problem that a society needs to solve is to connect people to needed resources efficiently, effectively, and expeditiously in a given situation. This may be an emergency situation when some life-saving help is needed to people stranded in a flood; or may be a festive situation when a desirable gift must be delivered at home before Diwali family gathering. In fact, the most fundamental difference between a desirable and undesirable community, or a country, is the infrastructure to connect needs and resources. Starting from the days when people were hunter-gatherer for food to now when different food could be delivered where you are, the society has been in the quest for continuously improving this infrastructure and will continue on that path.

Some key requirements to build such an infrastructure are: identifying individuals and their needs, finding locations of individuals and resources, doing the need-resource matching in the given situation, and finally executing situation based actions. There are many more details and for every situations and area the details will vary, but the above are key steps. Now, it is well recognized that digital technology is the key ingredient of this infrastructure to provide right actionable information to right people at right location expeditiously in the given situation. Particularly identifying each person, each location, and transaction mechanisms form the backbone for such infrastructure.

In the last decade, India started on several projects that may be transformative for not only India, but for several other countries in Asia, Africa, and South Americas also. Aadhaar is the project giving unique ID card to every citizen. This card stores minimum information in secure environment and can be used in all their transactions. In the last few years, more than a Billion Aadhaar cards have been issued and are being used for banking, commerce, and Government interactions. Another major challenge in all such countries is resolving and assigning addresses to locations commonly used in social interactions. For people in developed countries this is no problem, though even now mapping systems take you to wrong places. This issue has become very serious in India and other developing world. Efforts are being made to resolve such issues. Finally, most financial transactions among people were based on cash. How to bring the benefits of modern banking to masses in such countries is a major challenge.

Digital India is creating a India Stack, which is a set of open APIs for developers to build novel applications for interacting with Government for their regular official needs and services. This is definitely a good idea because in many countries citizens have to spend hours and sometimes travel tens of miles just to prove that they are alive to get their monthly pension. After listening to several talks, including one by the IT minister, about what could be done and how current Government is determined to make something happen, it does appear that India is at an interesting juncture. I hope that the operationalization and continuous improvement will continue.