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Digital IDs and the promise of inclusion in cities: Examining the human rights obligations of States

Project Topic Overview

This project examines the potentials and limitations of digital IDs with biometric features as a prerequisite for accessing health and other services in cities. It will contribute to the Sustainable Urbanisation, Health and Wellbeing cluster through a critical study of health provision facilitated by digital technology (IDs) as a means for improving the wellbeing of populations living in urban areas.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital IDs through COVID-19 passport schemes have been embraced as a mechanism through which States across the world can get back to normal life and get economies up and running again. In this way, COVID-19 projects leverage individual’s digital health data for the health and wellbeing of the entire population. In other low- and middle-income contexts, Digital IDs have been hailed as ‘equalisers of societal disparity’ and a transformative solution to the problem of health service delivery and exclusion in urban areas. All Digital ID projects face a number of well-known challenges, including the existence of ‘invisible subpopulations’, who are systematically excluded from mainstream urban society, missing from population surveys, official statistics and city planning. Additionally, we need to think critically about the multiple forms of inequality that may shape access to Digital ID programs and how they operate and impact on privacy, autonomy and accountability, especially for already marginalised / vulnerable populations.

The research will answer the following questions:

  1. How can we measure the efficacy of digital identification (IDs) projects through a rights-based paradigm?
  2. How do new digital identification technologies (IDs) transform health service delivery for ‘invisible’ and previously marginalised/ vulnerable populations in urban areas?

This project connects to law, digital media studies and public health. Dealing with matters of personal identification and new regulation, the project requires legal expertise. However, how digital IDs are created, maintained and used requires digital media expertise. Finally, as the IDs are aimed to facilitate public health improvement, expertise in this area is also needed.

Theoretically, the project will engage with different legal traditions around complexity and regulation by technocrats who create, maintain and increasingly self-regulate digital ID tools. Methodologically, we are interested in projects that push the boundaries of socio legal methods for instance, through multi-sited ethnographies including digital ethnographies, participatory research, infrastructure studies and digital interface-focused analysis, etc.

Applicant Profile

The candidate must have a strong academic track record and clear capacity for PhD-level research.

The candidate must be familiar with social scientific theory and methods. They should possess a good understanding of national and international regulatory regimes, political economy and global governance, as well as demonstrate knowledge of contemporary developments related to the operational and policy landscape of digital identification programmes for health. Experience of working with marginalised groups is desirable. A working knowledge of existing development programmes to improve health and wellbeing in marginalised urban communities in Africa is also desirable.

Supervisory Team

Dr Sharifah Sekalala, School of Law

Dr Sekalala is a Professor in Global Health Law. She is an interdisciplinary scholar with relevant interests in digital health, human rights, development, and vulnerability. She is exploring the potential and limitations of digital health in enabling the sustainable development agenda. Dr Sekalala has published in both law and public health journals.

Dr Nathaniel Tkacz, Centre of Interdisciplinary Methodologies

Dr Tkacz is a Reader in Digital Media and Culture in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies. He also directs Warwick’s Centre for Digital Inquiry. His research expertise lies with critically analysing the transformative potentials of new digital technologies, with a current focus on phone apps and data.

External Mentorship

We are partnering with KELIN, a non-governmental organisation based in Kenya, to provide external mentorship to the project. KELIN has led regional efforts in Sub Saharan Africa on human rights advocacy and litigation, digital rights and work with many vulnerable groups such as disability groups. KELIN is currently working with the Graduate School in Geneva on a project on digital rights in Africa. The organisation is led by the Executive Director Alan Maleche who will be the candidate’s mentor and local facilitator. Alan Maleche has expertise in the subject area including sitting on the boards of international organisations of international organisations such as UNAIDS and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He also won the Annual Elizabeth Taylor Award on Human rights in 2018 for his activism on key affected populations.