Keep up with the digital identity landscape.
It’s no revelation that Canada’s digital identity scene is among the most sophisticated in the world—the pan-Canadian trust framework, for instance, has been in the works for over a decade, evolving into a more orderly system that accelerates Canadian innovation interoperably across verticals and provinces.
This sort of digital finesse, however, does not extend equally among its citizens.
It is a phenomenon especially prevalent in Saskatchewan, Canada’s landlocked province that boasts lakes, badlands, and digitally underserved populations aplenty. Trust in digital solutions is also low here, compared with the rest of Canada—only about 32% of Sasketechwanians are willing to share their personal information online for convenience, far south of Canada’s 75%. The matter is pressing, but it is not without proper attention.
To properly erode these phenomena, Cosanna Preston-Idedia, Director of Digital Identity for Saskatchewan, and her team designed an engagement strategy between stakeholders and the public to increase trust, access, and use of a digital identity scheme. They specifically focus on how to break down barriers to entry for Indigenous populations and those struggling with mental illness and physical disabilities. Initially presented at IdentityNORTH’s conference in June, Cosanna’s forthcoming solution-based RFP will stand as one of Canada’s most conclusive and inclusive.
Cosanna’s distinctive edge stems from her unconventional background. She, unlike most in the digital space, did not start in tech, but academia, holding a BA in political science and an MA in African studies.
“My [degrees] ground me deeply in understanding systemic inequalities and my career path grounds me as a writer and communicator first and foremost,” she says. Before she arrived in Canada, she worked in Nigeria doing public relations for more than four years. It was not until she worked in customer experience strategy for a power utility that she was marginally exposed to tech.
“In tech, these skills translate to equity-focused, citizen-centred design and an ability to articulate value, provide clear explanations and bridge the gap between business and technical conversations.”
Still, “it’s not without effort on the technical side of things,” she shares. Cosanna no less spends her time understanding the core concepts that pertain to her tech policy pieces: API frameworks, aspects of technical project management, key cyber security considerations, and more.
“I think the biggest learning about my path to tech is there is no right path and likely more importantly, tech jobs are increasingly diverse,” she says. Her initial lack of understanding is a plus, as many Saskechewanians may not be consistently versed in digital services—”if we stay focused on the user needs, it makes those things much easier to learn for those who start out ‘non-techy.’”
Indeed, Cosanna and her team—Ola Daniels and Colleen McMahon of the government of Saskatchewan, to be exact—undertake projects that, for the government tech space, are unusually people-driven. Their deck at IdentityNORTH, entitled Designing For and With the Community: Engaging with IT Industry and the Public, for example, discussed the findings of their stakeholder engagement research for a Saskatchewan digital identity.
Survey guided, Daniels shared that their research question was a simple one: “What are some populations that would benefit from digital identity but may not take it up given barriers?”
Industry consultations, of course, were non-issues—both sides clearly benefit from the questions asked and solutions culled from them. It was the citizen answers that provided angle, sometimes sharp ones, to the RFP findings.
As her team probed the province, issues of internet connectivity, comfortability with a facial recognition in a future digital ID, and faulty user experience reports among those with visual impairment, physical disabilities, mental illness and language barriers came to the forefront. This stakeholder engagement work has permitted Cosanna and her team to unprecedentedly inform logistical parties on their specific digital ID needs.
“It’s a mission critical focal point for us, as understanding barriers will help us develop solutions that prioritize equitable access,” Cosanna says. “The digital divide is real and the choices we make in developing new solutions either contribute to maintaining [that divide], widening that divide or narrowing it.”
However thorough the research, these choices must achieve a certain level of thoughtfulness—with a bevy of diversely affected communities in play, maintaining an intersectional lens is key for Cosanna and her team.
“Intersectionality can compound both the barriers to access and the barriers to trust in a solution offered by a government,” she said. “To keep intersectionality front and centre we need to actively seek out stakeholder feedback that represents the diverse and intersectional experiences of the people in our province. We can’t do this by surveys alone, which I assume is the reference to numbers, and we haven’t done so to date. Our initial survey was complemented by a series of town halls and one-on-ones with organizations that represent people who may experience barriers to access or trust.”
She intends for the stakeholder engagement to “morph” into stakeholder involvement, hoping that they’ll remain constants in the design and implementation of the eventual program.
Identity is not the only sector with potential.
Saskatchewan, like most jurisdictions historically anchored by resource-driven economies, has embarked on a slow but sure bend toward tech. Last April, for instance, the province extended the terms of its Saskatchewan Technology Startup Incentive (STSI), first launched in 2018, offering a 45% tax credit to people, corporations and VCs that invest in early-stage technology companies. The update likewise increased the amount of capital a startup can raise under STSI, from $1 million to $2 million. Local founders met the legislation with glee.
For Cosanna, the digital landscape poses its own kind of promise—one accomplished with tact.
“Collaboration is critical, between the public and private sectors and between solution providers and users. Through that collaboration we need to ensure that we not only have a diversity of perspectives but that we are facilitating those perspectives in a space of respect and inclusivity, and that we are actively seeking out and giving disproportionate space to underrepresented voices. We can run ourselves into a trap of perpetuating barriers to access in the digital space if we focus on proportionality,” she says.
Her ruminations of inclusion and collaboration extend beyond the digital realm, applying societally. Barriers stymie innovation; access encourages it.
Boasting a people-driven mindset, Cosanna envisions an equal future for Saksetchewan and its forthcoming digital identity.
“Those of us working on the future of the digital landscape need to ensure that we are not perpetuating or exacerbating existing systemic problems of inequality,” she says. “We need to work collaboratively to close accessibility gaps, and support the creation of a digital economy that everyone can participate in.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Olivia Baker is a tech editor and journalist at Identity Review, where she writes on tech policy and national digital identity technologies.
Contact Olivia Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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