David Alston: A key proponent of NB's move toward digital identities.

David Alston: A key proponent of NB's move toward digital identities.

Three years ago, I saw the future when I witnessed Estonia’s digital government initiatives.  For me, the genie was out of the bottle and I couldn't shake the vision.  Since that day, I only see what's possible when it comes to New Brunswick.  The race is on to become the leader in putting citizens’ needs solidly at the centre of every developed solution. There has definitely been great progress behind the scenes in ramping up to a similar vision here, as well as in other provinces and states. 

It’s currently Innovation Week in New Brunswick, so I figured I would attempt to share this vision.  The digitalization of government is not an ‘if’, but a ‘when’.  So let’s look at what Digital New Brunswick might look like in, say, five years’ time – in 2022. I suspect some pieces will happen a little sooner, others a bit later. That’s the nature of a vision after all, especially when the approach should be staying dialed in during the journey and learning about what works and what needs more adjusting along the way.  Oh, and please take notice that I chose to use the word 'will' above.  If I've learned anything over the past few years, it is to be positive.  I've also learned that if you collectively paint the future, it’s possible to will it into existence using lots of creative thinking and action.

The First Step Is a Digital ID

In 2022, every New Brunswick citizen will have a secure e-Identity, or e-ID. The government is already at work on this initiative. Part of the magic of an e-ID is that you can securely verify who you are online.  This means you can do online the things you once had to go to a government office for, to prove who you were--think that chip-enabled bank card meets your driver's license. All your government-generated data will be attached to your e-ID, including health and education records, social development programs, licenses, permits, etc. Yes, basically you are at the centre of your data and you are now the one in control of it. The data is structured so there is no duplicate information such as, for instance, your home address. Do you want to change your address or your maiden name? You will do it once online and then you’re done. No more running around from department to department, no more filling out endless forms with information you’ve entered a million times before.  You will simply sign in with your e-ID, authorize the access to the necessary information, and add the extra bits of data related to what you want. Done. Oh, and once you no longer need that service, or specialist doctor, or permit, you can instantly revoke access to your information. 

Remember, you are the one in control.

The Digital ID Is the Basis of Helping Citizens to Help Themselves

An interesting thing happens when you get the keys to your own data – you start to feel more accountable for your own future.  You can take control of your destiny instead of expecting government to parent you. With the help of some artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, you will have the ability to put your data to work for you. You can request gentle nudges and recommendations that, in the past, would have been overly costly.  You can ask the platform to tell you about services and opportunities that suit your specific needs. Just think about how Amazon suggests books that you might like based on what you’ve ordered or are looking at. These capabilities have been around forever so why not get that same help for stuff that has a much greater impact on your life? Say so long to physically navigating reams of programs to figure out which ones suit you.  Now the programs will digitally line up for you!

Non-profits also have a huge impact on our communities. Imagine having the ability to authorize your data to work for you in determining which non-profits could help you improve your situation.  This will be through a social innovation labs, where citizens, non-profits and government will collaborate to analyze social problems, review programs, suggest and test solutions and craft policy changes.  That kind of collaboration is happening currently and I have no doubt it will be in full swing and standard practice by 2022, or even earlier. 

With the capabilities of such a platform, we will help every citizen reach their full potential, whatever that full potential is. The goal would not be to hold people permanently in a steady state that can unintentionally rob them of their motivation and aspirations. Citizens will be able to work with a trusted advisor for guidance based on an integrated view of their data.  This advisor – say a social worker, family member, friend, or non-profit counsellor – will be there to help set out objectives and desired outcomes. All citizens will literally have their own customized plan to help them improve and reach their potential. While some programs will be permanent (for example, programs to help someone with a permanent disability), most programs will be a temporary measure to help a citizen progress to the next step. This functionality is essential for people in vulnerable communities. They will no longer need to go physically from department to department trying to prove their case, while trying to juggle responsibilities for child care with no or limited access to transportation.  Any citizen would have difficulty trying to manage today's maze of programs, let alone someone with these additional challenges.

Citizens Take Greater Control over their Healthcare.

In the healthcare system of 2022, citizens will see most if not all of their health data. They will make appointments online, receive test results on their mobile phones, communicate with their doctors or specialists online as easily as they would on Facebook Messenger. Gone are the days of repeating X-rays because one hospital doesn't have access to images taken at another facility, and redialing your doctor's office to get appointments or results, and results being digitally entered, then printed and faxed to your doctor. In 2022, citizens will be much more aware of their health status.  Just think of the data you now get with wearable technologies.  Your health data will gently nudge you towards improving your well-being. Imagine also receiving instant potential drug reaction warnings or having your prescriptions instantly and securely going to your pharmacy as soon as your doctor prescribes them.  With all your health data connected, you will arrive at emergency and instantly alert staff of allergies and your medical history. That means faster care and lower chances for misdiagnoses.  We have amazing healthcare professionals.  Being able to empower them with a platform like this will not only allow them to spend more time delivering care, but it will also attract other professionals from around the world to work in a forward-thinking, patient-centric environment.

Education Becomes an Individualized, Life-Long Pursuit

In 2022, babies will receive a digital education record at birth, which will follow them throughout their lives. As parents, we sometimes don't know exactly how to maximize learning in the early years to give our children the best foundation. Parents will no longer need to guess as their children grow up.  These digital education records will not only hold the achievements of each child, but they will also lay out the outcomes they need to achieve. This platform will make it possible to deliver a truly personalized education – every child with their own path based on interests, skill levels and potential. Gone are the days of kids moving along in batches according to age. By knowing their outcomes, kids will take a much more active role in their education, collaborating with their teachers, and developing creative ways to achieve their required outcomes.  In fact, what I find so encouraging today is that I haven’t met a single person in our education system who doesn’t get excited about exploring these possibilities.

It Will Be Easier to Pay Taxes or Incorporate

Imagine doing your taxes in five minutes.  Since everything will be digital, there will be no need to receive printouts in the mail just to enter it all in forms. Collaborating with the Federal Government will be simplified because everything will be digitally linked to your e-ID. Doing taxes will require you to review the records and click submit!

With more people embracing entrepreneurship, setting up a business in 2022 will be a 20-minute process, completely online. After logging in with your e-ID, you will fill in a few new pieces of information, like business name and ownership structure, then hit submit. Now you will have your new business ID, linked to your e-ID to use going forward.

Too Good to Be True?

If this sounds way too good to be true, it’s not. This is all entirely possible. Estonia has already done much of this and more. If Estonia's progress proves anything, it’s that once a digital platform is in place it creates a foundation for more innovation.  Just think about how mobile data, GPS, touch screens, and the Internet have, as foundations, blended to create remarkable new capabilities.  And it’s all accessible right from our pockets.  As Estonia has also shown, the efficiencies of this new model will also lower the costs of delivering government services, leveraging leaps forward using innovation, rather than through linear cut backs.  Citizens will have more services and conveniences, all wrapped around them in a personally relevant way. 

Perhaps now you can see why, for the past three years, this vision has become firmly embedded in how I think about our future. Maybe, you too, will have a hard time shaking it. 

As well as having led marketing teams at several startups, David Alston is the Chief Entrepreneur in Residence for the Province of New Brunswick.

Have your say, post a comment

  • Dan McAleer

    What a wonderful vision and being from the technical world working for a state of the art forward thinking company for decades helped me understand years ago how this could be done, at least from a technical side.  I am sure there are a lot of software and coding issues but seemingly there are people out there working on these parts of the program already.  I sincerely believe this can be achieved within 5 years, and could have been done 5 years ago.  Two concerns 1) Our aging population may not have access to digital information as they do not use the internet and do not own a mobile phone.  I don’t have one and may never get to the position I want one in the future….I had enough of that before I retired.  But that is the concern…many people are simply not connected so they will lose much of the benefits of this new methodology.  2) The poor and homeless….again, lack of connectivity.  Some may not have the education to understand and use the internet and/or mobile phones….some may simply not be able to purchase a $700 phone or computer.  I know you can get 2nd hand much cheaper, and maybe that is a program we can also look at….donating 2nd hand computers and phones rather than selling them for almost nothing….and even if they ARE worth almost nothing they are BETTER than nothing.  I digress but I think you get my point.  Age and financial or living conditions will preclude a fair portion of our citizens so that must be considered as we develop this program.  I sincerely think this is such an awesome and perfect solution to so many long standing problems….data loss or not available between doctors, hospitals, labs and even surgeons.  And then there are the dozens of other departments that will benefit tremendously from inter-connected data transfer.  I would also like to add that this E-Id could be utilized within the education department to put teachers and education live and online…children who have medical problems, are just sick for a day or two or whatever the reason can access the classroom from home, being able to ask questions online and not lose time and fall behind on their studies.  As well, think of the snow days which could be fully mobilized via the internet.  There is no reason (except power failures) for kids and the teacher to sign in online and have classes wherever they happen to be.  That could be a big savings to the province in lost time, plus a big increase in the amount of days teachers have to present the full curriculum instead of trying to cram it into a school year shortened by 10 or 15 days by snow storms.  Anyway, carry on and well done so far.  I can’t wait till this begins roll-out and beta testing.  I hope to follow this through Facebook updates….PLEASE.  Good luck everyone involved!!!

  • Bernadette Fernandes

    I had the privilege of accompanying a client to the Estonian Embassy in Ottawa last week to collect his e-residency…so empowering.