Field Testing the Amply DApp

For the past two weeks, the Amply Team has been field testing a mobile DApp (Decentralised Application) for Early Childhood Development in Cape Town. This is the third iteration of our DApp and the first time we are testing it with a large and ever increasing group of early learning centers. We held an initial kick-off event with 10 Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres in Cape Town. Since then we’ve been iteratively deploying new versions of the DApp, assisting users through a Whatsapp group in their South African dialects and visiting them in the field to experience first hand how this is working for them.

Starting to test such a powerful mobile solution out in the African reality is an incredible experience. Not only does it make one realise the harsh realities we are trying to change, it also boils all the technological advancement of mobile technology and blockchain down to one factor: the user.

Coming from an industry where one boggles their mind over cryptographic principles and consensus protocols, engaging with a user and explaining the potential of a self-sovereign digital identity system is incredibly humbling.

Take Veronika for example, the principal of the iThemba Early Childhood Development centre in Muizenberg, Cape Town. In our most recent field visit she sat down with us and explained the importance of early learning centres for the local community. Many of the children that come here have parents who are unemployed, or suffer from substance abuse and at the age of 24 may have more than 5 children already. For these youngest and most vulnerable members of the community the centre is the only place where they are educated, cared for, and many only receive their only meal here.

“In our ECD centre children learn all kinds of skills in an age that is most defining for their life. This includes math, English, play and other life skills. We protect them from the reality of the outside world”. Veronika’s job is hard and chronically underfunded. In order to receive subsidies from the local government these privately run pre-school centers apply for subsidy payments on a quarterly basis. The quarterly report includes a daunting amount of paperwork, bureaucracy and the submission process is prone to errors. “Sometimes we travel all the way to the department just to find an error on the form requires us to re-do the quarterly report. Sometimes the paperwork gets lost at the department and we need to re-submit”.

In its first iteration the Amply mobile app now enables ECD centres to automatically gather their attendance data and submit it to the Department of Social Development. Currently, there is no process in place to track children or know precisely which ECD centre they are attending. Moreover, the department’s back-end system is entirely paper-based and very little data is gathered in a central location to provide information about the quality of services.

Not only will our platform allow children to easily move from one centre to another when their parents relocate, it will also enable service providers to track children from a very early age using their blockchain based identifier. Our protocol is unique in that it places each individual child at the centre of their relationships with Early Childhood Development services in a way that is ‘self-sovereign’ and directly beneficial to them. This means that a child’s digital identity and personal data are privately owned and controlled by the individual.

Over time, children’s life records become a crucial source of data, which can be used to receive services and insights that will become more predictive, precise, personalised, preventive, and participatory. By doing this we can develop entirely new classes of innovative applications for both local physical and distant virtual services. This is a big deal for growing a web of trust around children, to meet their developmental needs.

This is what we aim to achieve in the years to come. Right now, we need to solve the day-to-day problems of our users by giving them a free of charge administration solution that makes their life easier. While the centers are mostly excited about automatically submitting their subsidy claims through the app, many of them understand how important a child’s digital identity will become in their system. Using technology to shed light into the murky bureaucracy of social development, generating real-time verifiable data will benefit both the children and the centers. Veronika concludes: “I think it will work brilliantly”.

Amply: A Web of Trust for Children

Amply is a new kind of software platform that builds trust. This provides every child with their own self-sovereign digital identity. It enables children to receive benefits and services that they might have previously been excluded from. For instance, Amply is being used to replace an existing paper-based system to register children for a government funded pre-school subsidy in South Africa. Service providers use a mobile app to verify children’s attendance at classes and to capture other useful information. This will increase trust in the funding mechanism and make funding available to more children who need it. It will save administration time and costs. And it will provide really useful information about how and where services are being delivered.

Amply is unique in that it places each individual child at the centre of their relationships with Early Childhood Development services in a way that is ‘self-sovereign’ and directly beneficial to them. This means that a child’s digital identity and personal data are privately owned and controlled by the individual (with some help from their guardians). Over time, their life records become a rich source of data and value that can be used to receive services and insights that will become more predictive, precise, personalised, preventive, and participatory.

With consented access to personal data and identity assurance, entirely new classes of innovative applications can be developed for both local physical and distant virtual services. This is a big deal for growing a web of trust around children, to meet their developmental needs.

Is It Proprietary?

Amply is being developed as Open Source software. Open standards for Self-sovereign Decentralised Digital Identity will be foundational for the Web of Trust and will contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goal (16:9) to provide legal identities for all by 2030. We believe that offering open source applications of these standards is the only way to achieve interoperability, user adoption, and accelerated code development.

In fact, the distributed public ledgers (Blockchains), distributed file storage, and databases on which Amply is built are themselves open-source. This is fundamentally necessary for security and trust. It also creates more flexibility, freedom and innovation in how applications are adapted and used.

Open Source makes business sense for us because the value of our proposition increases as personal data grows with each new service that connects to the platform. This is also congruent with our vision for Amply to provide the tools and expertise for anyone to build decentralised applications that can amplify early childhood development impacts.

How We Arrived Here Today

Society has become increasingly reliant on centralised services that can’t really be trusted to meet our human needs in ways that will be sustainable. Years of professional experience in health and international development brought the realisation that the access models we have worked so hard to scale for institutional supply of essential services, financing, medicines, workforce and so on will never meet growing and changing population needs.

Innovative alternatives are necessary. This led to an exploration of the idea of ‘connected development’ and how to apply concepts such as Social Physics to new service designs that could enable information and value to flow more freely through dynamic networks.

And then Bitcoin arrived, unlocking blockchain technology to the world! Suddenly it seemed feasible to use these new decentralised information and communication protocols to somehow engineer our ideas into possible solutions. We started experimenting with use-cases and began proposing Proof of Concept projects. Eventually, with the backing of visionary funding partners, including The Innovation Edge, we got the opportunity to begin building towards our vision.

Intertwined: 9needs, Amply and Consent

9Needs was originally formed in 2012 as something of a skunk-works for selectively taking on interesting research and development projects. Our intention was to incubate potential startup ideas aligned with the principles of human-scale development (hence ‘9Needs’) and to launch these when they got traction.

These ideas really started to gain traction in 2015, as blockchain technology caught on and we received innovation funding to implement proof of concept projects from The Innovation Edge. We participated in the Barclays Rise Techlab Africa startup accelerator programme in the final quarter of the year and received the backing of Barclays Africa to build the Consent software protocol for exchanging personal data assets between trusted identities. This is the underlying platform on which Amply applications are built. We have intentionally kept a low public profile over the past year, focusing on delivering our proof of concepts. During next year we will transition to scale.

The team has grown through remarkable people volunteering their support and wanting to get involved in pursuing a mission that we all believe in. We have extremely open, innovative and inclusive ways of working with partners, collaborators, clients and funders. And we are serious about putting into practice the ideas we are working on. We have embarked on a plan to transition 9Needs into a full venture production studio that will be rebranded as TrustLab, based in Cape Town. This will invest in building skills, partnerships and user interfaces for implementing real-world solutions of decentralised applications for the Web of Trust.

The Amply Identity Protocol

We believe that Amply will help accelerate results and improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children by providing tools for delivering High-Definition services that are information-driven. This has two important dimensions: First we ensure that information is high-resolution. This means resolving all data to unique and durable digital identifiers (Decentralised Digital Identity) registered on a decentralised public key infrastructure.

Then we ensure that all data collection, processing, and reporting is high-fidelity. This means that data can be trusted as it is captured in a digital format with metadata and built-in error checking, logged with time-stamping, hashed (to provide immutable proof) and notarised on a public ledger (when relevant). All transactions are associated with authenticated identities, for accountability.

The system generates trustworthy, rich transactional data and metadata in imperative semantic formats, for instance using schema.org definitions. By encrypting the data and storing all personally identifiable information within an individual’s own personal data store, a detailed record can be built up over time for each person. Valuable derivative data assets, such as risk scores, can be derived from this personal information, to benefit the individual and generate population-based data analysis can benefit ECD programmes.

The Amply protocol enables permissioned access to personal data, with fine-grained access controls and transaction logging, using smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain. This is truly an open platform for innovation! The software and data standards we use make Amply completely inter-operable with any other standards-based digital service. This will include the entire ecosystem of decentralised applications that is emerging on platforms such as Ethereum. We know that networked information grows exponentially and this creates massive potential for future applications of this information that we believe will directly benefit children.

The Road Ahead

Our recent investment from the UNICEF Innovation Fund will enable further technical development of the Amply data analytics, reporting, and information management capabilities for Early Childhood Development. This will be crucial for national scale-up of the application platform in South Africa that is planned for 2017. It will also enable us to work with international partners to share the Amply platform with other regions and to adapt this to new use-cases that could benefit children in other parts of the world.

We look forward to making this journey with you and sharing our progress — one child at a time.

In Her Words: Ncumisa Tells Us About ECD in Her Community

Sometimes when we think about innovations, work with technology or conduct research, we can forget about people. People often get hidden in terminology; the ‘user’, ‘client’, ‘beneficiary’, ‘participant’, ‘test case, ‘use case’, and the list continues. However, at the end of the day, it is people’s realities that we want to shape and improve. All the decisions we make in terms of the work we do, need to be guided by those whose lives will be impacted. Now, the only way to improve that reality, is to understand it. And an important part of understanding it, is to hear about it from the people themselves.

Bearing this in mind, we believe that an important part of how we discuss our work is not only presenting technology and process, but the insights into the lives of the real people behind the innovation. Here, meet Ncumisa. Some insights into Ncumisa’s life, and her thoughts on early childhood development (ECD) centres, add immense value to our thinking around innovations to better her life, her centre and hence the lives of the children in her care.

Ncumisa (39), co-owner of Sinako Educare in Gugulethu.

Ncumisa (39), co-owner of Sinako Educare in Gugulethu.

Ncumisa had lots to say during our conversation, which can be unpacked in later posts, but perhaps what stood out the most is the role she sees ECD centres playing in the broader community. That will be the focus here.

Ncumisa is 39 years old. She was born and raised in Gugulethu, a township outside of Cape Town. She studied public administration, completing her level N6. After studying, she worked at Metrorail and Golden Arrow. At the age of 22 she decided to stop working and to assist her mother in the running of her ECD centre instead.

Sinako Educare, the family’s ECD centre, was started in 1996 by Sofia. Sofia was a domestic worker. After becoming a pensioner, she wanted to start her own business. Something that struck her was the environment in which children were growing up in her community. She wanted to assist those parents who needed to work and could not take care of their children during the day. Ncumisa describes the environment her mother saw:

Sometimes you can hear, you are sitting here and you hear the scream. Someone is looking for their child. Sometimes it’s a rape during the day and then there’s the ‘loose’ children. Anytime you want to call the child to send to the shop, you just stand outside and you will find the children playing outside. So that is why she decided to open the crèche.

After her mother passed away, Ncumisa and her siblings got together and decided to keep the crèche running. This was not merely a business decision. There is a commitment and a sense of responsibility to the community, both parents and children, in the reasoning behind keeping the crèche open: “We won’t let the children and parents suffer for looking for another crèche, whereas they know this crèche”.

For Ncumisa, ECD centres play an important role in communities:

The population of the children is high now and the safety of the children also. Because you know when your child is in the crèche they are in a safe place and in the safe hands of the people that are there. You don’t worry when you are going to work that you will get the call that your child has been raped or that your child has been killed. Your child is in good hands.

Working with children was not Ncumisa’s desired career path, but her time in the centre has changed her thinking. She loves working with children and she is a businesswoman: “I like working with kids a lot, but first I was not interested because it was not my dream to work with children. But now, since I’m with them, the bond is becoming so tight. … I cannot go back to working for anyone else now. I like it. I did enjoy this a lot. I don’t dream now for going to work for somebody else.”

When asked about her hopes for the centre, Ncumisa noted the following:

To upgrade, to upgrade, to upgrade the standard. Because we also want... the parents when they come here you know my child, the place is clean, my child has space where they can play, they’ve got a nice beds, they’ve got a nice clean mattress where they can sleep. And then the education also, they’ve got all the facilities because also we need to have, even if it’s a dummy computer, so the children will know how to type computer and also the toys. We need to upgrade, to upgrade the standard.

Her sentiments are obviously a reflection of what she wishes for her centre, but she clearly looks at the situation from the perspective of the parents and children in her community. She wants them to be proud of the centre and to get the most benefit.

What is also striking about her vision for the crèche is that it extends well beyond having better facilities, it is about impacting her broader community, a legacy left, no doubt, by her mother:

I’m just dreaming now the crèche must be big, so that I can employ and open the doors for other people who don’t earn, who are sitting at home, who don’t get work. To come to join us and learn with us. Because you know my mother, the time she started the crèche, two of her teachers are now owning their own crèches, two of them. They are owners now of their own crèches. So you come each and every day, you learning, we learning. Now I know this, I know that. Each and every day we must learn something.

Here, Ncumisa taught us a bit more about the bigger picture of what innovations and technology-use in the ECD arena should be able to affect. In seeing what she values we are able to target our interventions and ideas in ways that are meaningful to real people. Because without buy-in from those on the ground, the biggest and boldest ideas will mean much less.

‘Hand’s up high’: Ncumisa and some of her pupils

‘Hand’s up high’: Ncumisa and some of her pupils

 

 

Innovating to Safeguard Children's Identities

Have you ever asked someone what makes up their identity or thought about what makes up yours?  Some of the things that may come to mind are family, community, personality and occupation. And what is it exactly that makes you a person? Perhaps it’s your ability to interact with others, to learn, to love. As people, we think of our identities as very personal and subjective configurations of who we are. And ownership of that identity, is most definitely with us, the individual.

If we think in more practical terms, there are a number of things that give us ‘recognised’ identities. Birth certificates and identity documents register us legitimate people in the eyes of governments and a host of other organisations. Various manifestations of these types of documents grant us access to privileges and services; access to social grants, ability to open up a bank account etc. There are certain things we simply cannot do without proof of our identities.

As we navigate life and various institutions, we also build up these identities; like our identity CVs, and various links are made to construct a picture of this identity. For example, our identity number is associated with our credit record and our credit record impacts our ability to access credit in the future. 

Importantly, when it comes to ownership of these documents, it is the issuing authorities, not the individual themselves, who can claim ownership.

The importance of identity management becomes particularly evident when it comes to young children in marginalised communities.  

When it comes to accessing health and education services for children, identity documents and personal information are of utmost importance. Registering a child’s birth and giving them a name establishes a child’s right to their identity, becoming an assertion of their existence in society. Furthermore, it determines what other rights, privileges and opportunities may be enjoyed, or from which they are excluded in future.

Considering all of the above, current methods used for managing and administering identities are questionable. In the context of children attending early childhood development (ECD) centres this reality becomes particularly evident. The pictures on the left and below were taken at an ECD centre in Delportshoop in the Northern Cape. This is the form of storage used by the centre (and probably many other centres) for children’s documents that provide them with their identities (birth certificates, registration at the centre, progress reports etc.).

For information that is so essential to the future of a child to be managed in this manner is extremely problematic and concerning. Individual children are disadvantaged when they are left without essential identity documents, due to documents being lost or destroyed. While security and storage of these identity documents are already problematic, there are further issues to be considered.

Identity and personal information about a child’s family, where they live and other key data are needed by every organisation and service that they will interact with. Over time, these interactions build the person’s profile and credibility in society (like a CV or credit record) and are the foundation for trust agreements — such as being accepted into a school, or opening a bank account. This information is also used to provide services and interventions that are timeous and appropriate.

Today, social benefit and service providers are still duplicating the work of registering and validating the identity and eligibility of each of their ‘clients’. Moreover, they retain this information privately and the individual parent or child gains no personal ownership over their own information, which could enable them to transact with other service providers, or to benefit from increased credibility.

The information these organisations collect about what benefits each child actually receives tends to be analog, fuzzy and lumped together in averages — such as when this is reported on or used for accountability and planning. And their digital identity and personal information can be exploited by third parties, without benefit to the child.

The question then becomes, what do we do about this?

For 9Needs, the solution is self-sovereign digital identities, grounded on the belief that individuals have the right to ownership of their personal information, especially in the context of ECD. 9needs is currently prototyping a distributed, decentralised digital identity solution based on revolutionary blockchain technology.

In short, having a unique digital identity benefits individual children because they can prove their eligibility to receive services and benefits from a range of service providers. Any information that is collected in the process is owned by the child for their own future benefit.

A production-scale open and decentralised platform, based on the Ethereum blockchain is currently under development. The identity management platform will provide a scalable and low-cost back-end infrastructure, which ECD applications can interact with. Furthermore, the generated real-time data will be stored and encrypted to ensure decentralised ownership of the data.

This platform enables:

·      Creation and management of trusted registries of self-sovereign digital identities for ECD agents and beneficiaries;

·      Standard digital identifiers to be shared between organisations to record, update, validate, deliver, receive, store and distribute associated information about services or benefits that are delivered;

·  Recording of transactional metadata, value transfers and personal information as Data for Development (D4D), for public good;

· Children to have their own ‘Digital Wallet’ in which important digital assets, including their personal information and scans of their important documents will be privately and securely stored;

·  Decentralised Applications to be configured that encode ‘business rules’ (using Smart Contracts) in such a way that processes such as registration, incentives, monitoring, payments - can be automated and trusted.

This is really just the beginning. Establishing a digital identity system is the starting point for more transparency and legitimate, measurable impact in social development.

Follow us as we embark on this journey.