Ravi Bapna

Opportunity of a Lifetime

Friday, April 1, 2011

By Chuck Benda


For Associate Professor Ravi Bapna, research opportunities don’t come any better. Bapna, who holds the Carlson School’s Board of Overseers Professorship in Information and Decision Sciences, describes himself as an IT economist whose goal in life is to truly understand the socioeconomic impact of information technology. He’s currently studying India’s nationwide project to assign Unique Identification Numbers (UIDs) to its citizens.

“This is the mother of all IT projects,” says Bapna. “Nothing on this scale has ever been done. To be in the thick of it, to study and come to understand the rollout and the long-term socioeconomic impact—well, I feel very privileged to have this opportunity.”

The Indian government launched the project in 2010. Enrollment—which is voluntary—involves collecting biometric information (all 10 fingerprints and an iris scan) from enrollees and assigning them their UID number. Enrollees can then use their UIDs to identify themselves anywhere in India to access a range of financial services, government programs, and more. To date, approximately 1 million citizens have enrolled.

Bapna believes the megaproject is worth the risk and the $850 million price tag. “Roughly 600 million Indians don’t have access to even the most basic financial services such as credit and bank accounts,” he says. “Providing a reliable means of identification reduces the risk of providing credit and other banking services, which lowers the cost of capital and is critical to sustaining and accelerating economic growth in industrializing nations.”

"I believe the project will create an identity infrastructure that will support numerous applications that are hard for us to even imagine today."

Ravi Bapna

Bapna’s research will be conducted in two phases. During the first phase, he is establishing baseline information about financial inclusion through a 500,000-household survey. He is also studying the adoption process itself to help the Indian government facilitate adoption of the UIDs. It is the second phase of the research, however, that interests him the most. “We’re going to measure the long-term social impact,” he says. “Will the project truly alter financial inclusion?”

Although it’s too early in the game to deliver any research results, Bapna believes the UIDs could transform India forever. “This is an extremely large-scale IT and social project,” he says. “I believe the project will create an identity infrastructure that will support numerous applications that are hard for us to even imagine today,” he concludes. “Think Facebook or the iPhone application ecosystem—but even more open; an ecosystem of government-to-citizen, business-to-citizen, and perhaps citizen-to-citizen apps.”