Digital ID: What we’ve been up to and where we’re headed

Sara Baker

Last September, we started working on a research project looking at the effects of digital identification on local communities. We’ve been in touch with many people, organisations and institutions who are thinking about digital identification systems in different ways, and we’ve developed some exciting research methods. We’re excited to share a bit of what we’ve been working on over the past several months and look forward to hearing from you if you’d like to contribute or learn more!

Putting people first

After an initial literature review on how and where digital ID systems were being developed and/or used, we selected five sites across Africa and Asia that provided examples of national ID systems and refugee camp systems. We were looking for research sites that would build upon our existing knowledge and allow us to carry out comparison across sites, with the potential to identify upcoming trends. In each location, we are considering one specific digital identification system as the ‘research site’ and looking into the lived effects, perceptions and consequences (intentional or not) of that system.

A key goal of our project is to amplify the voices of people who already experience and understand the effects of digital identification systems. With that in mind, we called upon our networks to help us find thoughtful, critical researchers to form the in-country research team. It was important for us to work with in-country researchers who understand the local contexts, especially since our literature review and ongoing conversations revealed that most research on digital ID focuses on the systems themselves rather than people and tends to be conducted by researchers outside of the communities most affected by digital ID.

We also recognised that a lot of research on digital ID has happened outside of the five research sites we selected, so we formed an advisory council consisting of people working in humanitarian, academic and civil society contexts outside of our research sites. With this group, we’re hoping to learn from and build upon experiences and expertise from other spaces. Our advisory council is made up of Rosa Akbari of Mercy Corps, Wafa Ben-Hassine of Access Now and Kim Wilson of Tufts University. We also worked with Global Voices to learn from their multi-country research experience and contacts in the field.

At this point, we realised that our digital identification project team was quite large – the biggest of any project team we have at The Engine Room! With so many research consultants on board, working in diverse contexts, we needed to create a number of processes and resources for the team in order to address such issues like communication, security, responsible data management and informed consent in an intentional way. We’ll share more on these processes in an upcoming blog post.

Designing participatory research

For us, in-country researchers bring much more than just the ability to lead the research in-person. They’re best placed to co-design and decide how research should be carried out within their contexts. We wanted to work towards shared goals, so we co-created an adaptable research framework involving a literature review, key informant interviews, and focus group interviews with civil society and individuals affected by the selected digital ID systems.

Designed with our researchers, the project examines four key themes:

  • The digital ID system: How it is/was planned, how it functions
  • Peoples’ lived experience: Where they encounter the system and feel its effects
  • Peoples’ ‘unknown’ experience: Where the system affects them in ways they are not directly aware (e.g., data sharing, surveillance)
  • Civil society: how civil society is and could engage

With this research framework to guide them, our researchers created methodologies and instruments to meet the needs of their local contexts. Essentially, the ‘what’ that we’d like them to come away with is shared among the group, and the ‘how’ they want to gather that information is specific to each context. For example, some people are doing a combination of in-person and remote interviews, while others are incorporating art into their focus groups.

We look forward to sharing more about the framework and are discussing the best ways to make it available so that others interested in doing similar research can adapt and build upon these methods.

Planning for change

Once the research phase is complete, we’ll move into the analysis phase and share results with local and global audiences later this year. One of our goals is to bring our learnings back to the communities we researched and to communities where digital ID is just emerging. By connecting these communities, we hope to support a stronger ecosystem with shared strategies on approaching digital identification systems. We want to support local voices and civil society in joining national, regional and global discussions on digital ID.

We’re excited to see the results of the research and will give our first presentation at RightsCon in Tunis, from 11th-14th June. In the session, ‘Pushing for change on digital identification systems’, we’ll present our initial research results, have a few people share their experiences doing advocacy around digital ID systems, and highlight key learnings advocates and civil society organisations can take forward.
If you want to contribute to the project by speaking with us or connecting our team to civil society organisations working on digital ID, feel free to chat with us in Tunis or write to

Image by Yiran Ding via Unsplash.