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Ken Banks at work in Malawi evaluating a technology project. Photo: CARE UK

Anthropology Meets Digital Identity in the Last Mile

  • Viewpoint
  • By Ken Banks (Yoti)
  • 11 December 2020

Ken Banks, Head of Social Purpose at Yoti, explores how an anthropological approach to identity can help ensure inclusive digital identity systems that empower local communities

Over recent years, anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us as well as how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand.

When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do. The emergence of dedicated events such as the Anthropology + Technology Conference is testament to the increasing interest in, and influence of, anthropology in areas of technology and innovation.

And rightly so. It’s widely recognized that projects and products can succeed or fail on the realization (or not) of their relative impacts on target communities. In the consumer electronics sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working in hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia, and Microsoft are three such examples.

Just as large international development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people just go by a different name – customers.

Selling phones as torches in Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the initial arrival of cheap $20 feature phones (and now $50 smartphones), but is also due in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spent increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the bottom of the pyramid, or those with very limited disposable income, might want from a phone.

Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone (a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets), mobile money, and phones which hold multiple SIMs.

After 15 great years I closed my company,, and in 2018 joined Yoti as their Head of Social Purpose. Along with our work with businesses, we’re also deeply committed to helping digital identities become a force for social good. In pursuit of this we work with the humanitarian and non-profit communities to help them deploy appropriately-designed digital identity solutions in their work.

We also believe in the need to better understand 21st century identity concerns and opportunities among communities in developing countries, and that we should support local innovators, researchers and civil society in their pursuit of solutions to local problems that matter most to them.

And, not surprisingly, we’re very much applying an anthropological approach to those efforts. Much of the current research begins with the technology and works its way down to the people who use it, an approach which has given us something of a knowledge deficit.

What we’ve been missing is an understanding of why people might want a digital identity, how they interpret or understand digital identity, their concerns and what tools and approaches might be missing in their local context

Our Fellowship Programme in particular aims to support local efforts to answer these questions. Earlier this year we announced our first cohort of Digital Identity Fellows, three individuals in Argentina, South Africa and India looking to better understand critical issues of exclusion and human rights in digital identity in their countries, among the communities where they live.

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A tweet from @GoodID, about a recent community article by Grace Mutung’u. Technology solutions do not work everywhere

We’ve also been working on a low-tech, simple, offline digital identity solution called Yoti Keys for users in last mile, grassroots settings. Conversations with people on the ground very much informed our decision to develop it, and the direction we took. You can read a summary of that research here.

We also continue to release our Digital Identity Toolkit, and next year we plan to launch a number of innovation challenges where we hope to support those closest to the problems to find technically and culturally-appropriate solutions to any identity challenges they may face.

Our simple, offline Yoti Key solution. Photo: Yoti

While the vast majority of the technical development of digital identity solutions takes place in the ‘developed’ world, many of the biggest identity challenges are found in the Global South.

Before we develop solutions to problems thousands of miles away - problems that we might not necessarily understand - it’s crucial that we not only consult the owners of those problems, but also empower local actors in ways that enable them to contribute to the development of those solutions. Without such an approach, we seriously reduce our chances of success.