Making sure as many children reach their fifth birthday
It is a sad fact that, each year approximately 5.6 million*1 children's lives end before their fifth birthday. One of the major causes of these deaths is disease, especially in developing countries. Vaccination is one of the most important methods for preserving young children's lives who have not have developed immunity against infectious diseases. It is often the case that once an illness sets in without vaccination, it can quickly become serious and leads to death.
However, just having the vaccine available is not necessarily enough. To be effective, vaccinations need to be given as part of a program in which medical history is maintained. Proper medical records allow doctors to see which children have had which vaccines when they had them and when they must have a follow up. Medical records rely on being able to properly verify the identity of a child so there are no mistakes in the spacing between vaccines or amount of doses.
In order to make this possible in more countries around the world, NEC is working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which promotes vaccination programs in developing countries, and has embarked on a new challenge involving fingerprint identification for the very young.
- *1UNICEF, "Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2017" P1, October 2017
The Child Identity Crisis Deeply-rooted in Developing Countries
Even now, 20 million children in the developing nations have not been able to receive standard vaccinations. This puts their lives at risk. Aspiring to enable each child to receive vaccination fairly is Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (hereafter "Gavi").
Gavi was formed at the Annual General Meeting of the World Economic Forum (Davos Conference) in 2000. Its participants include governments from around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank, the vaccination industry and various research institutions.
Gavi's has focused on developing nations, and they have administered vaccines to 700 million children and saving an estimated 10 million lives. The vaccination rate of the three types of mixed vaccinations (diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough) throughout the 73 countries that the alliance supports reached 80% in 2014.*2
Despite these results, issues persist. The number of children who have not been fully vaccinated around the world is estimated to be about over 19 million. As a result of this, 1.5 million children are estimated to die from preventable diseases annually. One of the main reasons for this, is that one in three children in the developing world has no formal ID and their existence is not recorded. Although birth records and maternity health record books are being established in each nation and region, these services can often be incomplete and inconsistent. For example, in the Sub-Saharan region (the region of Africa to the south of the Sahara Desert), half of all children under the age of five have no birth certificate.
Gavi is focusing on fingerprint identification to solve this problem and strengthen vaccination programs. By using fingerprint authentication technology to identify individuals, NEC believe that we can drastically improve the consistency, effectiveness and scale of vaccination programs.
"In developing nations, millions of children do not have a birth certificate. It is difficult to give children vaccinations if they are not properly registered. If vaccinations are not administered at the right time, this diminishes their effectiveness, and if a vaccine is given that has already been administered, this presents its own risks. 'Which children? What vaccine? When were they vaccinated?' To understand these questions, we want to utilize the most accurate fingerprint identification technology in the world, developed by NEC," explains Saori Tsubakino from the International Relations Group at NEC's Global Relations Division.
The Most Accurate Fingerprinting Technology in the World
In order to accurately identify children, Gavi adopted a fingerprint identification solution from the UK-based company Simprints Technology Ltd. (hereafter "Simprints"). Simprints is a start-up that emerged from Cambridge University in the UK and provides a smartphone based fingerprint application that connects to a scanner via Bluetooth. The system can be used offline, making it extremely suited to use in developing nations where there may not be an Internet connection.
However, while this solution was able to identify the fingerprints of adults, it, like most fingerprint technologies, had an accuracy issue when it came to the fingerprints of children under the age of five, who are the main target group for vaccinations. The fingerprint scanner was extremely durable and could be used in the harsh environments of developing nations, but children could only be identified by linking them to their parents.
That's why NEC suggested to Gavi the biometric identification system "Bio-IDiom." The biometric identification system "Bio-IDiom" has been highly rated in benchmark tests sponsored by the US government and it excels in speed and accuracy. Bio-IDiom's fingerprint identification technology was ranked Number 1 several times in NIST tests."The combination of the extremely durable Simprints fingerprint scanner and NEC's world-leading* fingerprint identification technology has been a huge help in supporting the work of Gavi," reflects Tatsuya Shimahara, Manager of NEC's 2nd Government and Public Solutions Division.
- *NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology Result of the benchmark tests sponsored by the US government
NEC is a company that creates social value, aiming to realize a safe, secure, fair and efficient society, and is contributing to achievement of the SDGs by maximizing the potential of ICT together with its diverse stakeholders. Gavi's work is one aspect of the SDGs, and is linked to the implementation of "Universal Health Coverage (UHC), where NEC is also intensifying its efforts.
Unforeseen Difficulties from Handling Sample Data
As this joint development project progressed, a number of unforeseen problems arose. One such issue was obtaining sample data to for the system's development and testing. Our partner, Simprints, has a lot of child fingerprint data gathered from previous projects. So, if requested, it could provide such data, but there are problems with sharing this data between companies. "When sending personal information outside of the EU area, you need to undertake procedures based on the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), which is designed to protect such personal information," says Tsubakino. The GDPR is much stricter than Japan's Act on the Protection of Personal Information and the penalties are severe.
GDPR had just started, so there was a lot that we did not understand, like what kind of procedures we would have to undertake in order to share information, which GDPR provisions would be applicable to the data received, how to check for the consent of those who provided the information, and whether we would need to coordinate with the authorities. Even within NEC, it was the first time that we had dealt with GDPR and we had never really acquired data from Europe before, so there was some trial and error involved. We ended up making the most of our internal connections who introduced us to a Europe-based legal department who patiently taught us everything we needed to know about GDPR. Although we experienced a lot of difficulty, thanks to them we were able to deal with GDPR and receive fingerprint samples of 150 children under the age of five from Simprints. One other good thing is that we were able to confirm that Simprints is a trustworthy company that acts in accordance with GDPR and operates the transfer of data via contracts." (Tsubakino)
Once we had the sample data, it was time to get to work on development. However, this work was not straightforward either. There is difficulty in dealing with children's fingerprints that does not exist with those of as compared with adults.
Achieving an Unprecedented 99% Identification Rate for Children's Fingerprints
NEC has a 40-year history of research and development in fingerprint identification. When NEC first began we were working with police organizations. The original aim was the analysis and identification of fingerprints left behind at crime scenes. Since then, this technology has been refined, developed and honed with the expertise of a large number of NEC researchers. As a result, it has been able to demonstrate itself to be the most accurate in the world. It is currently used not only in Japan, but also in police forces and investigative authorities abroad.
However, we did have to overcome several obstacles when applying this technology to children. "Our fingerprint identification systems were not designed for identifying children's fingerprints, so we needed to create a mechanism that would allow us to identify child fingerprints with the same accuracy as adult fingerprints. The development of a child fingerprint identification system ended up becoming a series of challenges as we aimed to create a new mechanism that had never been created before," reflects Shimahara.
Although fingerprints themselves do not change over our lifetimes, the size of these fingerprints does as we grow. We needed to come up with something that could respond to the change in size of these prints (Figure 1). Children also have soft fingertips. Just pressing a finger to the sensor distorts the shape. Delicate children's skin is also susceptible to dryness and roughness. We needed to be able to identify the prints even if they were distorted or partly smudged.
To identify a fingerprint, the first thing that you need to do is to scan in a print, convert the image into data, and extract feature values that can be compared. Then you need a mechanism to compare these with pre-registered fingerprints. There are lots of different forms of image correction and comparison technology, and thus a myriad of combinations of patterns.
"We first eliminated all of the unfeasible patterns and then considered the rest by testing them one by one. There were some patterns that were highly accurate but took a lot of time to process, and vice versa. We were looking for a pattern that would meet our accuracy requirements, but would also improve processing speed," explains Shimahara. They also worked hard to develop a compact application that could be distributed smoothly even in developing countries where the infrastructure can often be inadequate and communications may be unstable.
They also continued to improve on the existing technology so as to help to accurately identify the fingerprints of children even as they changed size with growth. "We developed a mechanism that would correct distortion and smudge while also eliminating other "noise". Thanks to this, we were able to achieve a 99% accuracy rate when identifying the fingerprints of children, which is extremely high," Shimahara explains.
Child Fingerprint Identification as a base for Personal ID in Developing Countries
Because NEC was able to overcome each of these hurdles, Gavi decided to adopt the NEC child fingerprint identification engine, leading to a memorandum between the three parties (Figure 2). The signing ceremony was attended by Gavi Chair Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Simprints CEO Toby Norman and NEC Representative Director Nobuhiro Endo, and was covered with great interest by the media.
"Lots of people from different departments helped us with this project. Thanks to them, we gained expertise in GDPR and fingerprint identification technology. As we were preparing to sign the memorandum, we had to explain to the media about the significance of this project, what role NEC was playing, and our future vision. Lots of people helped us to create presentation materials and a Q&A for the media, and we received a great deal of valuable advice. Our strong desire to utilize NEC's technology and contribute to the spread of vaccinations throughout developing countries really supported this project. Having everyone, including our peripheral support, share the same ideas when it came to turning our vision into reality, became a major driving force," Tsubakino recollects.
Future prospects also continue to open up. Gavi, Simprints, and NEC are going to start a 12 month test of this system from January 2020. This test will involve approximately 5,000 children aged one to five in Bangladesh, and 15,000 children in Tanzania. The aim is to verify that the child fingerprint identification system could withstand even the harshest of environments in practice. "Once this succeeds, it will give us a major foothold for the first scalable child fingerprint identification system in the world," says Shimahara, looking forward.
The significance of this technology is not only limited to this specific use case. It is said that as many as one billion people worldwide do not have a personal, verifiable ID. Accurate personal authentication is essential to giving everyone fair and equal access to health care, education and financial services. If the child fingerprint identification can be put into practical application, it will be possible to directly give a personal ID to those children who have so far been left behind. These children will then be able to receive the support that they need to grow up healthily, becoming capable of supporting the development of their country while continuing to have access to national social security. "If children's identity can be accurately and consistently verified, then the benefits are not restricted to just vaccination: it can also ensure that food properly reaches children who are suffering from hunger or make it easier to support the children of refugees. We want to be able to contribute through the growing application of child fingerprint identification, so that every single citizen in developing countries is able to securely access social security," Tsubakino says of the project's future outlook.
This project has only just begun. The most critical period starts now. However, there is no doubt that a powerful step has been taken toward the implementation of an unprecedented new infrastructure.