How can India leverage its data footprint? Experts weigh in at the India Economic Summit

Digital footprint
Digital footprint
Image: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell
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As India expands its digital footprint and more Indians gain access to internet, what is next for the country’s digital journey?

Reports suggest that over half of India’s population now has access to internet, and the country accounts for 12% of the world’s internet users. As these numbers swell, questions about policy and governance, privacy, and the value of an individual’s digital footprint gain significance.

While India is a land of great opportunities for internet-driven products and companies, the challenges of literacy and numeracy, as well as rising instances of fake news need to be simultaneously tackled.

This and several other aspects of the internet—from digital payments and identity to educational technology and data localisation—were discussed yesterday (Oct. 03) at From Digital Divide to Digital Dividends, a session at World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit in New Delhi.

The hour-long session at India Economic Summit delved deeper into India’s internet moment and the challenges it threw up.

Speakers included Nandan Nilekani, co-founder and chairman of Infosys, Wipro chairman Rishad Premji, and Singapore’s deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat. The session was developed in partnership with Quartz India and was moderated by Diksha Madhok, editor and director of platform, Quartz India.

Here is what they talked about.

India’s digital journey

Nilekani: They (Aadhaar, unified payments interface, and accounts aggregator) are three distinct phases of the change happening. One, of course, was designed so that 1.3 billion people have an identity, which can be verified online in many ways, and can be linked to a bank account. Today, we have 700 million linked bank accounts, which has helped in direct benefits transfer, and in turn, reducing pilferage and fraud. This is what I would call transactional efficiency.

The second big thing was the payments reform in India. I think India has a unique payment architecture, which allows many people to participate in the payment system. Historically, in most countries, there tend to be two or three strong players and a duopoly kind of situation. In India, we have a truly multi-party payment system thanks to National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), a non-profit collective utility set up by the banks. They have launched UPI, and different banks and channels can plug into it. So today, you have Google Pay, WhatsApp Pay, Amazon Pay, PhonePe, Bharat Pay, and Paytm…That platform (UPI), during December 2016, was doing 100,000 transactions a month. Last month, they closed at 950 million transactions a month

The third big thing is that thanks to these transactions, whether it is bank accounts or digital payments, there is now huge amounts of data. How do we leverage this data for the benefit of businesses?

There, our thesis for the last few years has been that the model of data getting leveraged by India is very different from the Western model. Because, in the West, the internet came up say 15-20 years back, where already people were well off. As people starting generating data from their activities on the web or their phones, it became a great opportunity to make money out of advertising…

But in a country where the per capita income is less that $2,000, even if people are using these devices, there’s not much advertising you can offer to them. If a billion people have a huge footprint out of their digital activity, if they can take advantage of that data to get better loans or better health care, then you have turned it around and put data in the hands of individuals and small businesses to get big benefits…

The accounts aggregator architecture launched by the Reserve Bank of India will help individuals and businesses use their own data to get benefit.

How can tech reach citizens

Premji: There’s tremendous opportunity in new-age technologies. But my submission is that we’re still scratching the surface…

The skilling programme is a great example of the public-private partnership, and as part of that you can fundamentally rethink how to skill people. In the first phase, the Future Skills platform looks at how to reskill 2 million of the 4 million people the IT industry employs. The second phase is about how one can enhance the capacity of the teacher to leverage her capabilities to deliver better students. The third phase is about opening the skilling platform to citizens. I find that the government, working with the IT industry, is maturing and this a great example in my mind.

Singapore’s tech revolution in education

Heng Swee Keat: I led a group of educational leaders to Silicon Valley because I heard that the biggest thing there was ed-tech. At the end of it, I asked them, “What do you like about this?” So they said they liked the creativity and ingenuity that they are using for this digital technology. But they didn’t look totally happy. So I asked them what they didn’t like. They said, “Well, we don’t like the assumptions behind it that the teacher can be made redundant.” The question is how we can use ed-tech to augment to teacher’s capability, and understand education more fully. It is about developing the whole person, in particular, the social-emotional learning of the child. We don’t want to create zombies with apps. We need the interaction with humans, and humans interact and learn in different ways.

Nilekani: I think if we can use technology as an amplification of human capacity as opposed to a replacement of human beings, it will be a far better way to do it.

Data localisation

Nilekani: The real issue is not data protection, but we empower people with their data. What we have seen over the last 20 years is that massive accumulation of data benefits companies and governments, but not individuals. The real thing is how to make it work for individuals.

Premji: We shouldn’t confuse protection with localisation. I don’t believe the intent of the government is to shut off data at all. The objective is how do we make sure it is safe, and trying to find the right contours and boundaries in trying to determine that.

Heng Swee Keat: There is also a cost to data localisation. If we are able to put data together better, I think we have a far richer set of information that you can then analyse and benefit from.

Watch the full video of the event here.