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Biometrics: Closing the Identification Gap

Posted 24th October 2017

Biometrics: Closing the Identification Gap


According to World Bank data, as many as 1.1 billion people worldwide are unable to formally prove their identity. An increasingly popular way of overcoming this challenge is to analyse a person’s biometrics – in other words, measuring a person’s “identity based on a physiological or behavioural characteristic. It is an effective personal identifier because it is unique to and embodied in each person, so it cannot be forgotten, lost, or stolen like other conventional identification methods.”


Last year, we gave a £150,000 grant to Simprints, a non-profit technology company from the University of Cambridge. The Simprints team is developing open-source software and biometric hardware to help researchers, NGOs, and governments fighting poverty around the globe. Its biometric technology is 4 times cheaper than conventional devices, and 200% more accurate at reading the scarred, worn fingerprints typical of “last mile” beneficiaries.


Why did we invest? The widespread lack of formal identification across the developing world is a problem which costs lives, wastes resources, and prevents millions of people who are in the greatest need of help from accessing critical financial and health services, as well as creating challenges for governments who are trying to deliver efficient and effective public services. Accurate identification (what is the right health treatment to give to a specific individual?) and verification (was the treatment actually delivered?) suffer, leading to mis-targeting of beneficiaries and leakages through fraud, corruption, and incompetence.


In a recent paper Biometrics: Game changer or boondoggle”, Muralidharan and others present the results of using biometric authentication via fingerprints to reduce leakage in a welfare program in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. They find very positive results, including:


  • A ~40% reduction in corruption-related leakages;
  • An improved user experience for beneficiaries, with over 90% of participants reporting a preference for the new biometric system over the traditional system); and
  • Aggregate time savings for beneficiaries estimated at $US 4.5 million per year due to less time spent collecting payments.


People who lack a formal identity are disproportionately the world’s poor. Of the 1.1 billion faced with these challenges, 78% live in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and 36% of the population in low-income economies is estimated to lack an officially-recognised ID. Addressing this inequality is critical to achieving several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, notably 16.9 which calls on the global community “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration”.


Since we made our investment, Simprints has made real progress, implementing several new projects across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The team also recently secured over $2m in new funding from the Saving Lives at Birth Partnership – the prize will enable Simprints to scale their current project covering 22k patients in Bangladesh with BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, to scale nationwide across 24 districts, reaching 4.85M mothers and children over the next three years. Follow on funding from others for investments made by GIF is a great signal of the potential for impact from the work we do. A hearty congratulations to the Simprints.


At GIF, we are always keen to hear from innovators whose mission is to harness the power and potential of biometric and authentication technologies to improve the lives of the world’s poorest people. If this description fits you, then we’d love to hear more!