What a death tells us about NIDS

Anyone who has been following my commentary over the last year or so will know that I am not a fan of the government’s plans for a national identity system (NIDS). However, many of my concerns are being deliberated by Jamaica’s Constitutional Court, so I’ll await their adjudication and see what follows. Anyone who knows me well, also knows that I need to walk a very careful line on how and on what I make comments. I have been bemused and also distressed by some of the commentaries that suggest NIDS is some kind of panacea for many of the ills that exist in Jamaican life. I don’t have problems with claims that NIDS will smooth the path to digitizing Jamaica:


That’s a given. But, how NIDS works towards other objectives, including service delivery by both public and private sector, depends much on how other agencies choose to or can use it. For instance, if the Jamaica Constabulary doesn’t move from inefficient paper records, that are not easily integrated, to digital records or ways of verifying such digital records on the spot, certain potential gains from NIDS cannot be realized. Identify frauds, for instance, wont disappear, even if harder. It’s long been understood that criminals thrive, in part, because they are at least one-step ahead of law enforcers including being able to tap into human frailties to commit transgressions even if sworn to do otherwise.

As I have written in recent days, my father died in late-November, and was buried on December 11. He is no longer a living person, which is known and obvious to anyone who knew him. What needs to happen, now, is for institutions and people to learn of his death, and deal with that, accordingly. The problem with human society is that people and organizations need to know when we come into existence, when we change the nature of our existence, and when our existence ends. Documenting existence efficiently is what NIDS should be about, essentially. Documenting that across several countries or jurisdictions can be problematic, but is usually doable. Some countries have systems that do not pay much regard to the rest of the world; ironically, the USA is one such country: try enrolling for certain services in the USA and getting blocked by the fact that you don’t have a US address.

In most countries, births are recorded at the time they occur. If there is a delay in recording the birth then that creates scope for mistakes. Recording births properly is made easier if they occur within well-recognized institutions, but even then mistakes happen. If a birth occurs at home, say, then the accuracy of recording the event depends on the ability and education of those involved in the birth. Someone who is illiterate or unable to complete the report of it online, say, would not be able to record the birth accurately. That same problem can occur if you have institutions which are responsible for recording life events and the person providing information is either illiterate or in some sense ignorant how relevant systems operate. You can always have simple human error messing up the recording of events. For example, when paper records are being digitized any record missed could disappear from a system. One then has the awkward situation, say, of someone having a paper record of their original birth certificate but that record doesn’t exist in digital records. Strange, but true, according to a story a Bahamian in-law related this morning.

Some problems occur in a country like Jamaica, where English is supposed to be our official language but many people do not speak or write English very well. They rely on the spoken word and may utter words that sound correct but are not the correct words. So, in the case of someone giving information about the birth to an official, the person may say the name of the child but what they say may have no bearing on the real or desired name of the child. We know stories from the recent past, perhaps apocryphal, where a friend or relative was asked to record the birth of a child and when they were sent they were given a note with the child’s or children’s names and told that the name was pinned on them. When they arrive at an office for the registrar general, and were asked the name of the child, they said the child’s name was ‘Pinned on them’. Sounds ridiculous? I have at least one relative close to me whose name appears to be a written representation of what someone said but the name is really hard to understand given the origin of names as we know them. More common are the existence of other errors, such as date of birth. Again, I’m all too close to those errors within my family.

Jamaicans have lived with the consequences of these kind of birth records errors for decades. NIDS won’t remove existing errors. I struggle to see how they have made us highly criminalized or economically poor performers. So, reducing them is unlikely to result in major shifts in those kind of socioeconomic ratings.

According to everyone who knew my father from his childhood and told to me by father, he lived all his life with the wrong official birthday. His grandmother got the dates for him and another child confused. At his death, however, I was not in a position to correct that, and the records show that error to his grave, literally.

While information about dates of birth and death are only part of identifying who someone is, we know that they do not determine who someone is. NIDS, or any other system, needs other corroborating information to cement an identity. Biometric data can offer such corroboration, to a degree, though are not infallible. The challenges to such data systems are fully explored by US NGO The National Academy of Science. Specific concerns have been raised about use of biometrics in recently developed NIDS systems, eg India’s Aadhaar system.

My father has a trail of documentation that establishes who he was that is not only based on Jamaican records but supplemented by UK records (pre- and post-independence), and by the vagaries of diplomacy cemented in some international records based on his travel and need for visas. Most of that is paper-based, and any electronic records reproduce errors that exist in ‘source’ documents.

As I try to wind up my father’s life, these errors will be there for all time and only family memories will carry the truth.

Anyway, he’s been removed from the voters list (the Electoral Commission of Jamaica is on a drive to remove dead voters, launching the ‘Dead Elector Removal Exercise’ on November 28, which is aimed at clearing the voters’ list of persons who have died since 1998). His bank accounts will be closed, in due course. I’ll have to advise the Royal Mail to discontinue his pension payments. These changes rely on conscientious individuals to keep others informed, and in a timely manner. I think I have the essentials covered, but others could be unaware or unable to do the necessaries. Given the fallibility of systems and people operating them, I’ll be interested to see which institutions continue to seek him out after they’ve been informed of his death.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)