One of the distinctive features of the Identities Project is that it engages with the audience as the research is taking place. To do this, we designed a combination of the episodic outputs with roundtable discussions where we would solicit input from our audience that could feed back into the research itself. Here, we’d like to share how that feedback cycle is building better research.
The roundtables in April were incredibly rich in dialogue with diverse perspectives and questions. One participant raised a question that explored the kinds of technological répertoire that people have in their lives.
After all, we’re looking at some of the poorest of the poor – people who often won’t have a smartphone, or internet access at home. Through that discussion, we recognized that we hadn’t explored this enough in the research to date
It’s a vital question because, of course, we’re trying to analyze what benefits identity technologies bring to users – not to the designers and owners of those technologies.
But what happens when those objects, or the context around them, changes? A heavy metal fan who’s uncomfortable with Iron Maiden t-shirts being sold in Topshop, or inspiring tour merchandise for Justin Bieber, can begin to get a sense of how Mayan weavers might feel when they see their spiritual leaders’ clothes on Miss Guatemala. When the popular perception of the artefacts that we use to define ourselves shifts from cultural to merely transactional – where they become economic units, thought of primarily in terms of their economic value – it erodes that part of our identity.
Participants in Delhi and Bengaluru noted that, if an identity system isn’t designed to work for users from the start, it raises further issues around how much it can be revised or shifted in some way later on.
This was seen as particularly important around the issue of privacy.
So, we took that insight and revised the questionnaire that our researchers have been using up until this point for the final phase of the project in Assam and Delhi. We already have a process in place where the researchers would first ask interviewees about their inventory of identity credentials. (“What do you have in your wallet right now? When did you last use them? What was it like using them?” and so forth.) We added questions like: “Do you have a phone? Do you have access to the internet at home? What kinds of devices do you have?”
The other way we adapted our protocol in response to session feedback was to expand the timeframe we asked about – so not just asking about the last week of transactions, but about the past three months to a year.
When we asked variants on “what if people find out about your personal information?” it seemed as if people didn’t particularly care; whereas when we started asking “what are things that you wouldn’t want other people to know about you?”, the responses were much more revealing. It was a shift from the established way of talking about privacy – focusing on personally identifiable information (PII) – to a more harms-based perspective of data breaches. It’s been very productive in giving people a better way to articulate their feelings on the issue, which in turn helps our understanding of their concerns, particularly in that it’s helped open the conversational door to related issues around social media practices.
Another point that was posed in Bengaluru was that,
when you look at questions around the technologies people use to prove their identities, it’s worth asking about whether they have a choice in which technology or system they use.
It’s a question that can reveal a lot about the power dynamics in these systems – and of course, it turns out that people rarely do have a choice.
For example, we went to a community bank in rural Assam, and interviewed customers as they came in. There was a school cook who wanted to know if she’d been paid – her last paycheck was two months overdue – and so she tried to use the biometric fingerprint reader to access her account. It didn’t work, until the bank agent grabbed her hand and forcibly held her thumb down on the reader.
That kind of moment is significant because these identity technologies are presented as empowering individuals to be in charge of how their information is managed, and to be in control of their interactions with services like a bank account.
In most countries, including India, one of the dimensions to that is the question of gender.
A woman’s ability to control over who enters her personal space points towards where the limits of her autonomy lie.
And when you see someone being physically guided by a bank agent when trying to use a service that should be increasing her autonomy, it’s a huge contrast with the claim that identity technologies are about empowering individual autonomy.
In conducting this research, we have experimented with an engagement mechanism that has enabled an audience to feedback into the research as it is happening. This has been challenging, but has made the research stronger. We’d like to thank everyone who has participated so far.