No-one Left Behind

To ensure equitable access to digital public infrastructure, it’s crucial to address the digital divide. This involves extending connectivity infrastructure globally, reimagining digital systems for offline accessibility, and enhancing digital literacy. Innovations like offline Aadhaar enrolment and QR-code-based services, along with user-friendly design, are key to making DPI inclusive and accessible to all, regardless of their technological proficiency.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Among the concerns often raised in connection with the proliferation of digital public infrastructure (DPI) is the worry that nations that are reliant on digital systems for the delivery of public services will end up excluding those incapable of accessing these digital solutions from the benefits these systems were built to offer. As digitisation efforts accelerate across the globe, the schism between those who can access these systems and those who cannot is only going to get more acute.


Most people associate digital capacity with connectivity. As much progress as we have made so far towards connecting people across the planet, there are vast spaces left to cover. Very few countries, even among the most developed, can claim to have so completely blanketed their territory with network coverage as to be able to offer 100% connectivity to their citizens. What this means is that, even today, large segments of the world’s population still lack access to our digital systems. As public administration becomes increasingly digital everywhere, this will eventually become the single biggest obstacle to the widespread availability of public services.

The obvious solution would be to extend our connectivity infrastructure to the farthest corners of the globe. This will require tremendous investment in fibre-optic cables, satellite transponders, cellphone towers and all the other paraphernalia needed to build the physical infrastructure of digital connectivity. Even though countries around the world are doubling down on these projects, it will take a while before we get there. Despite our best efforts, even a century after the invention of electricity, there are still vast areas of the globe that are not connected to an electric grid. It seems unlikely that our efforts at improving the penetration of our digital network connectivity will fare any better, especially given how dependent it is on the availability of electric power.


If we want our digital public infrastructure to accelerate development, we need to make sure that its benefits reach everyone in society, no matter whether or not they have always-on access to data connectivity. This will require us to ensure that the infrastructure we build is digitally enabled so that it can be used just as easily by those who do not have always-on connectivity.

This will require us to fundamentally re-imagine the way in which we build our digital systems. Instead of just making sure that services are only accessible through a real-time online connection to the systems that deliver them, we need to ensure that they are accessible offline as well. We need to provide alternate forms of access to these services—such as via QR codes that let necessary digital information be presented in a non-digital format (a QR code lets a paper printout be ‘read’ by a smartphone camera). We need to design them so that essential functions can be performed locally even when the system is offline and synced once the device is brought to a location with network connectivity. Such creative solutions will improve access to these systems even as we try to deepen network penetration.

Much of our digital public infrastructure is built like this even today. Aadhaar enrolment can be done offline, as demographic and biometric information is first captured locally before it is uploaded to servers of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) when the enrolment agent gets connectivity. Offline QR-code-based authentication allows identity verification without needing a live link to the Central Information Data Repository. Innovations such as USSD-based payment and Hello UPI mean that our fast payments system can be extended to those with feature phones as well. This sort of thinking needs to be extended to all digital systems, so that even as we upgrade the provision of public services, we ensure that no one is left behind.

Digital Capability

But even after everyone is offered a way to access these digital systems, whether online or off, it still does not mean that they have all it takes to use them. Capacity is measured not just in terms of access, but also the ability to use it. To ensure no one is left behind, we will need to upgrade people’s digital capabilities so that they not only understand all that these systems have to offer, but are also aware of the harms that could befall them if they are not careful.

The obvious way to do this would be to invest in training—to implement workshops, assisted learning sessions and the like—so that as many people as possible can become digitally literate. However, as important as that is, I believe we should spend just as much effort designing our systems so that they are capable of being used even by those who are not tech savvy.

For this, we will need to make sure that we include appropriate design and U/X features that will make it easier for those seeking to use these systems to intuitively grasp what they have to offer, regardless of whether such seekers have any prior experience with digital technology. Much of India’s digital public infrastructure already incorporates this design philosophy. This is one of the main reasons why UPI, our fast payments system, is so widely used.

We must ensure that this sort of thinking runs through the creation of all digital systems, wherever in the world they are being built. The benefits of DPI need to be widely and equitably disseminated, regardless of people’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with technology systems.