The usual complaint in Ghana is usually that of lack.
A lack of resources, a lack of leadership, a lack of planning, etc. ad infinitum. However, one thing we apparently have no shortage of in this country are large, government databases.
Despite general complaints about difficulties of funding, every government agency in Ghana that needs to issue some form of identification or keep some form of public record creates and manages its own, private database.
Databases that serve only the organizations that created them and neither harness extant records, nor provide any broader benefit to public service.
The creators of these databases are all well-meaning and their existence is loudly justified by the organizations that created and manage them. To some extent, they do also serve a rather limited purpose. The problem though is exactly that, in a land where we constantly complain of a lack of resources, we should demand more for our money, not less.
Effectively, Ghana has a number of data silos which replicate information several times alongside their own unique data but fail to provide any cross-functional benefit for various government departments and agencies.
What’s wrong with this?
Due to this silo structure, Ghana lacks the ability to derive greater value not only for consumers, in offering simpler services by leveraging extant information, but for government agencies in getting a holistic view of the Ghanian populace.
The following are just a few of the national databases that exist in Ghana (and the organizations that hold them); keep in mind that these all exist separate from each other.
In how many would you find duplicate records?
- National ID (NIA)
- Voter’s Records (Electoral Commision)
- S.S.N.I.T. records (SSNIT)
- Passport Registration (Ghana Passport Office)
- NHIS (NHIA)
- DVLA records (Drivers and Vehicle Licensing Authority)
- Births & Deaths records (Birth & Deaths Registry)
- eZwich records (GhIPSS)
- Marriage registration records (Metropolitan Authorities)
- Criminal records (Ghana Police Service)
- Mobile Number Registration (NCA)
Keep in mind this is far from a comprehensive list.
Do you see the problem now?
Each and every one of these databases was established and is run independently of each other. That means that the costs of setting up and maintaining each of these databases is incurred individually.
There are approximately 26 million Ghanaians and each of these databases most likely holds millions of records. That’s millions of records that have to be actively maintained, updated, and queried easily. This isn't cheap, the paper or servers these databases are held on come at a cost which our tax monies must provide.
The manpower required to actively maintain these databases and the cost of photocopying (for paper databases) or server maintenance and upkeep isn't low.
The manpower needed to actively query and update these databases on a daily basis also comes at a cost to the government, whether in terms of cash or time.
So why do we insist on repeating our efforts and cost across so many government bodies?
The most critical aspect of these databases is that they must be queried easily and be updated quickly in order to facilitate public services such as the issuing of driver’s licenses or passports.
Unfortunately, a large number of these databases still exist as sheets of paper, stuffed in old cabinets with not a hint of a computer around them.
You want a new passport to replace an expired one, or you want to transfer a vehicle’s ownership?
Sorry, you either bribe a worker there to look through the records extra-fast to find your own or you wait several days for the task to be done normally.
The solution here may only occur to you as you are sweating in the middle of a long line waiting to register for yet another license/certificate/or ID card. If you already have your information stored on one government database, why can’t your information have been accessed and updated to deal with this new license? It’s the same person, the same Ghanaian, now wishing to access a different service from government, yet you have to submit your persona data all over again?
An example: You signed up for a National ID card and submitted all the necessary data to receive it. An election period comes forth and you have the chance to finally get a Voter’s ID card and cast your ballot. Is it really necessary to join a long queue to hand over information proving you are Ghanaian before you can gain permission to vote? Of the information that is required from you by the Electoral Commission, how much of it hasn’t already been provided to the government via other registrations for public services?
Vision Of The Future
What would an ideal situation look like?
What possible benefits could be derived from offering a single, software-based, national database?
Cost is the easy explanation, but it could go so much deeper than that. Allow me to illustrate:
Ama takes her first breath in Korle Bu’s maternity ward. A National Identification for her is created and a birth certificate issued immediately. As the child goes through her first medical checks and tests, her medical records are stored electronically and directly linked to her National Identification. These same records are then accessible to and updated by any medical center in Ghana she may receive care for.
Soon enough, Ama reaches the right age to apply for a driver’s license. Once she passes the appropriate tests, her National Record is updated with her license to drive and possibly vehicle ownership. The same process occurs when she applies to be able to vote.
Her National record is updated with her voting permit. When she wants to travel, a passport is issued but no new record is created, rather, her National record is updated with the necessary data.
Apply this same sequence when Ama gets married, registers to pay her SSNIT contributions or NHIS levy, up to and including her eventual passing and the death certificate to be created and issued.
A system like this would allow for sane maintenance, access, and use of the various public records any Ghanaian would likely have.
The term synergy helps describe perfectly the extra value that can be gained from unifying these databases and the varied information within them.
Our crime fighting activities are one area that would benefit greatly from the synergy created in combining all these databases. Say Terence (me) is a burglar and robs a house. Luckily for the police I didn't bother with gloves and they've been able to retrieve fingerprint evidence. This evidence however is useless unless there’s some fingerprint database to run the checks against.
Most Ghanaians would believe we have no such thing here. But we do. Apart from the police’s own fingerprint data taken from prior arrests, there are much larger databases present. For example, when any eZwich customer registers for the service their complete fingerprint records are taken and stored digitally.
Apart from that, both the DVLA and the Passport Offices take fingerprint data from applicants for their services. If the police gained access to that database of fingerprint records held by another government agency, they’d be better able to search for a match against available records. It’s not perfect or complete, but its a great start to aid police work.
Big Data Possibilities
That’s just one example of the extra value that could be created out of linking these databases together for a unified format. That’s the beauty of it, the government could not only solve cost and management problems but create entire new synergies out of combining already existing services.
Even more exciting are the possibilities for generating valuable, actionable information about the Ghanaian populace through big data analysis. The Ghana Statistical Service will be able to provide the Government and the public with deeper insight into our society and trends among the populace. Such information would be invaluable to a governance structure we often accuse of being out of touch with the populace.
Would such an effort bring its own potential problems? Of course. A unified national database such as this one would require a comprehensive security and data privacy strategy to protect consumers against privacy infringements or data theft.
A centralized database unfortunately also means an easy, central target for hackers and data thieves. The systems and servers that this national database would exist on would need to be hardened and guarded constantly against potential evildoers. An extensive permissions system would also need to be developed to ensure that those who have access to the database may only access the data that is strictly relevant to their needs at the time.
The work of maintaining such a database to assure constant availability and redundancy is also a major consideration. This data must not only be stored safely but accessible for queries and updates 24/7 across the nation and beyond. It would be a monumental task, but one I feel our National Information Technology Agency alongside private sector partners from our technology industry are well-equipped to handle.
What we must keep firmly in mind are two core ideas. One, that the status quo in the government’s handling of our data is unacceptable in a nation of our age and ability.
Secondly, that creating and managing a massive, complex database such as the one envisioned here is neither an impossible nor a unique challenge.
There are private firms across the world such as Google or Facebook which have already faced and solved this challenge in storing customer data and providing services based on that to millions of customers across the world. In Ghana itself, we have our own software development companies that are well capable of meeting the challenge presented.
Dear Government of Ghana, we have a database problem, good news is, it’s not a tough one. Fix it.