When it comes to healthcare, showing proof of identity is an essential step in accessing life-saving services. Many of us may take for granted being able to reach for our wallet and sharing a state-issued driver’s license or ID card, but what if you don’t have any official form of identity?
More than 1.1 billion people around the world still lack an official identity. Biometrics presents a way for governments and NGOs to use digital technologies for accurate and inclusive identification of program recipients. Simprints is a tech nonprofit out of the University of Cambridge that uses biometrics for humanitarian response, aid distribution, health programs, and financial services for people living in under-resourced areas.
Biometrics are unique physical characteristics, such as fingerprints or faces, that can be used for automated recognition. Cisco first began supporting Simprints in 2018 to help customize and test mobile camera-based (vs. fingerprint-based) biometrics, using facial recognition. The current pandemic has only increased the need for touchless biometrics in delivering aid and health services in developing countries.
Using technology to change the vaccine deployment space
Christie Civetta (pictured above right) is Director of Partnerships at Simprints, and has been leading a new project with Ghana Health Services (the implementation arm of the Ghana Ministry of Health). In partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, they are focusing on innovative technologies and approaches that can be game-changers within the vaccine deployment space. Still in the design phase of their project, Gavi and Simprints are exploring how to use touchless biometrics to create more effective vaccine rollouts and avoid wasting doses.
Simprints is working with the Director General of Ghana Health Services with the ultimate goal to use biometrics to support Universal Health Coverage. They are starting in the maternal and child health care space with routine immunizations for children. “The idea is to look at biometrics across multiple verticals like HIV and TB care, maternal health, and vaccinations, and then use it as a lever to strengthen overall health systems,” Christie shared. Using technology funded by Cisco, Simprints will integrate touchless biometrics into the data collection application already rolled out in Ghana. Every time a mother or child comes back for the next vaccination, or prenatal care visit, they will then identify themselves using contactless biometrics.
The benefits of adopting touchless biometrics
Touchless biometrics offers four main advantages over existing systems. First, it helps people avoid touching an actual device. Second, it has a high level of accuracy. Third, it can be deployed more quickly. And fourth, it may be more culturally acceptable depending on the region.
There is still an underlying fear of touching devices right now due to Covid. Touchless biometrics removes that barrier. Another benefit is that touchless biometrics can be done on any tablet or phone with a camera without needing to purchase an additional piece of hardware (which fingerprint biometrics require), providing a more scalable and cost-effective solution for the governments and nonprofits deploying the technology.
When it comes to the facial recognition feature in Simprints’ biometrics while tested in the field, it has about a 98 percent accuracy rate. Cisco has supported Simprints in developing facial recognition tools that are specifically designed for use in the Global South. Many biometric tools just don’t work among these populations. A US government study released in December 2019 found that Asian and African American people were misidentified up to 100 times more frequently than white men by the world’s top facial recognition systems. Simprints’ technology is designed to avoid these biases. This level of accuracy helps support healthcare workers in those regions with trying to serve folks more efficiently and quickly.
Another benefit of touchless biometrics is that as a software application, it can be deployed rapidly. Touchless biometrics is a scalable, easy-to-use solution that can be utilized quickly, making it a great fit for emergency scenarios like during a pandemic.
Cultural acceptability is another area of consideration. For example, in some areas, people associate fingerprints with the police. In other areas, people associate taking a picture of their face as an invasion of privacy, or it may be prohibited for religious reasons. Christie explained, “Simprints uses both touchless biometrics and fingerprint biometrics. The advantage of having both modalities is the ability to pick and choose what makes the most sense for that particular culture in that particular space.”
The goal? Increasing health outcomes through touchless biometrics
Although Simprints and Gavi are still in the project design stage for the Ghana Health Services project, they are trying to understand the present state and the outcomes that they would like to see.
An area that is important to Ghana Health Services is the issue of duplicate records in the system. Cisco provided a follow-on grant to Simprints in June to support the development of real-time identification of duplicates, and duplication analysis, which will improve data quality and prevent duplicates from entering the system. The aim is to remove any duplicates to have a clean database where one beneficiary equals one record.
“Ultimately, we want to increase and improve health outcomes through the use of technology. Looking at some of the other programs that we’ve engaged with, we saw a 38 percent increase in maternal health visits because of technology, and 19 percent more newborns had follow-up essential care plans. We’re hoping to see similar numbers over time with this three-year project,” Christie elaborated.
Simprints is on track to reach about 4 million beneficiaries in the next two years across both biometric modalities through the Ghana Health Services project and others. One other project involves touchless biometrics in India, aiming to reach a million people by the end of this year. Christie anticipates that the flexibility of touchless biometrics and the adaptability of the technology will help them expand their reach, “Cisco has enabled us to build technology that allows us to reach the most vulnerable populations on a national and global scale.”