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Paving the way to validate the world's first biometric-based vaccination management prototype system

The NEC researcher, formerly a salesperson, on a mission to save newborns in developing countries

"I want to use technologies to help vulnerable children." It was out of a strong desire to utilize biometrics—which are capable of verifying a person's identity by a person's presence alone—for the identification of newborns soon after their delivery that led an NEC employee with a sales background to make a major career change and become a researcher. Ultimately, this researcher became engaged in the world's first study on the utilization of biometrics in a vaccination management system. What new social value has NEC created through its efforts to ensure that newborns in developing countries receive the proper vaccines they need by verifying their identity from the very start?

The utilization of newborn fingerprint identification—once thought impossible—in the world's first verification system for research

UNICEF has reported that in 2021 alone, 2.3 million children around the world died in the first 28 days of life due to causes that could have been prevented by proper health care and public services. The Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nagasaki University and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) have joined hands with NEC to save the lives of these children. The research system, which is currently the subject of empirical research in the Republic of Kenya, performs biometric identification and manages vaccination schedules and histories for newborn children. Although the concept was simple, the path to its implementation was not easy.

To begin with, ten years ago, there was almost no prior research on biometric authentication of newborns and adopting the existing application of fingerprint authentication technology to newborn children was deemed "impossible." Also, since most of the hospital data were recorded by hand, even searching for information was a burden on caregivers, and monitoring "when," "where," "who," and "what vaccines were received or not" was a major challenge.

There were two key remarkable points for the success of the validation trial. One was the development of authentication technology using fingerprints of newborns taken within two hours after birth, enabling the inclusion of newborns who are discharged from a health facility with their mothers shortly after delivery. Research on methods to reliably obtain and precisely authenticate fingerprints of newborns, while taking into account differences not only in weight and height but also in postnatal care and climatic conditions of birthplace, continues to this day.

Another key point was the combination of multiple biometric authentication technologies. The research system combines fingerprint authentication of newborns with voice recognition technology to identify parents and caregivers. The voice recognition technology used in this system can identify parents and caregivers simply by collecting voice from any position with a microphone, making it less burdensome for both the person collecting the voice and the person whose voice is being collected during typical verbal identity confirmation. This enables more secure identity verification with little to no change to existing procedures used in healthcare settings. This is the world's first trial of a vaccination management prototype system that combines different biometrics for parents and children.

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Shifting from sales to research with a mission to "use biometric authentication technology to protect the most vulnerable children"

NEC Biometrics Laboratories Senior Research Architect Yoshinori Koda, who is leading NEC's efforts in Kenya, was the prime mover behind the development of biometric authentication technology for newborns at NEC. Koda took up a sales position when he first joined the company. This is a very rare case of someone from sales becoming a researcher in NEC history.

Face recognition and fingerprint authentication were originally invented and developed for use with adults. Koda, who has been involved in various biometric authentication technologies for more than 20 years, traveled the world as a sales representative to promote the utilization of biometric authentication technology for National ID systems in different countries in Asia and Africa.

Through these visits, he witnessed the reality of the many children in the world who do not have legal identity coming from birth registration and are therefore unable to receive fundamental education or appropriate medical care. He thought that even if they can't speak for themselves or present an identification certificate, using fingerprint authentication for example would enable verifying their identity just by having them extend a finger. And, if their identity can be verified and their citizenship can be proven, they should be able to receive public services such as healthcare and education.

However, since newborns were not even the subject of biometric authentication research at that time, there was not much he could do as a salesperson to expand the technology. Convinced that "there are solutions that only cutting-edge researchers can come up with," Koda decided to go back to school.

In 2018, he enrolled in the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Information Sciences, Tohoku University, and studied at the laboratory of Professor Takafumi Aoki and Associate Professor Koichi Ito. He also became a cooperative researcher of the laboratory of Professor Satoshi Kaneko at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nagasaki University, a collaborator in the current joint research project. He presented his research results at international conferences and meetings and was assigned to NEC's Biometrics Laboratories, where he finally participated in the research in Kenya as an "NEC researcher."

Not hard selling, but offering true value "for the sake of the children who are yet to be born"

In Kenya, the first thing he worked on was to understand the issues and needs in Africa. One of the issues he found was that the time from childbirth to being discharged from the hospital is shorter than the usual in Japan. In the study in India, they demonstrated the ability to carry out fingerprint authentication for newborns within six hours after birth. In this project, they succeeded in further shortening this period to two hours after birth. He presented these results at an international conference in September 2019.

Koda recalls, "The local people were very cooperative. Although, at the start, I think they had the impression that I was just 'somebody who came from Japan to take data from African people.' That is why I knew, as a researcher, I had to show them how this could help solve their problems, not just conduct my research.” It was this resolve that eventually led to the trial of the world's first biometric-based vaccination management prototype system and made participating parents, healthcare workers, and government officials understood the expected effectiveness of the prototype system.

After a lot of trial and error to improve the accuracy, more than 300 babies were registered during the latest research conducted in Kenya from September 2022 to March 2023, which enabled verification of their identities without problems. "I was happy not only that we were able to verify their identities, but also that because of the prototype system, all the participants could complete their required vaccination for babies." Registration in this system helped parents to understand the importance of vaccination and also made it easier for healthcare workers to manage vaccination administration and data. These results led to a feeling that this prototype system plays a part in saving the lives of newborns. Their next goal is to deploy this prototype system at the regional level in Kenya by the end of FY2023.

Koda says he is always reminded of unforgettable words he received from a mother in Kenya.

"If this is for the benefit not only of my children, but also of the children of our country who are yet to be born, I am more than willing to cooperate." These were the words of a mother who had just given birth and was still physically recovering from childbirth.

Our research and technology are accepted as valuable, not just to feed a developed country's ego and definitely not conducted by hard selling. These words truly attest to the kind of social value creation NEC is aiming for.

"I carried on my back the aspirations of the many local people who cooperated with us, the generous guidance of my mentors, and the pride of NEC as a biometric authentication specialist. That's why I am determined to make it happen."

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