Further along the Yellow Brick Road

The world has changed since February when I published my previous post on Emerald: our journey towards a Digital Credentials ecosystem for Ireland. Little did we think that within a fortnight of that post the world would be in lockdown. Fortunately, the changing global landscape has not significantly de-railed our plans.

Before I describe where we are going, it might be useful to wind back a little over a year to see the journey we’ve travelled. My first exposure to the potential of digital credentials came from a workshop with Evernym organised by Irish Life’s CEO David Harney in late 2018. Seeking volunteers to work on some initiatives of value in this space, we asked the question ‘what would it take to gain support for the launch of a national digital credentials ecosystem for Ireland?’ and Susan Gibson’s EXO Innovation Hub became a core backer of this idea. Some early conversations with the public sector showed that there was appetite to support initiatives that empower citizens and affinity with the principles of ‘not-for-profit’, ‘public good’ and self-sovereign, in the sense of putting the choice and control in the hands of the credential holder. We looked to the journey followed by the Alberta Credentials Exchange (ACE) for inspiration and saw a “summit” or a gathering of a variety of representative sectors across Ireland as a good starting point to gauge appetite and generate some discussion and potential sponsors to develop the idea.  

A little over a year ago, Dave Shanahan and Garvan Callan brought the benefit of their respective consultancy experience to the initiative and enlisting the support of An Post, Deloitte Consulting and A&L Goodbody, joined Irish Life in providing the pro-bono muscle to arrange our first Digital Identity Summit on October 10-11th 2019. I liken the approach to arranging the summit to the filling of Noah’s Ark: we weren’t looking to get everyone onboard initially but did want at least one representative of some major sectors attending as an indicative subset. We ended up with representation from (among others) a Retail Bank, a Credit Union, Telecoms Utility, Postal/Delivery Utility (An Post), Energy Utility (ESB), a mail-order specialist, Insurance company (Irish Life), broader Financial sector players and industry bodies, a couple of significant Government departments and public sector representatives, Legal firm (A&L Goodbody), PR agency, Management Consultancy (Deloitte). We were also fortunate to have experts from vendors including Evernym, SecureKey and Sedicii, and though leaders from Deloitte, Willis Towers Watson and others speak about real-life customer case studies and experiences in other countries and industry sectors, with the workshop expertly moderated by Cillian Leonowicz of Deloitte.

There were many positive outcomes from the Summit: there was a massive ‘feelgood’ factor in the room over the two days. All attendees were bought into the principles of a ‘public not-for-profit utility’ and ‘common good’ and there was universal agreement that being able to carry and exchange credentials from a phone-based wallet would simplify life for many. We agreed to follow-up with participants over the following few weeks to discuss next steps.

In the direct aftermath of the summit our view of what success looked like was building an investment fund (maybe 10 x €50k) to inject life into the next phase of Emerald development. Irish Life remained an enthusiastic backer, but we struggled to get others to sign up for a cash injection. The general view was that the concept was fantastic, but the gap between the dream and the reality was large and no one party could see how their partial investment would translate into steps along the road to a successful deployment, and therefore hard to justify that initial investment. You could say this was our ‘Field of Dreams’ moment: ‘Build it and they will come’.

I’m off to see the Wizard

We’ve all read of the rejections JK Rowling received before getting the first Harry Potter novel published, a good reminder that great success can follow initial rejection. We were a little despondent that our fundraising efforts had not been particularly successful but stopped to think about what was important. The funds were simply a proxy to enlist effort and expertise to complete the design of Emerald. So, we considered our success during 2019, the extent to which interested parties gave freely of their time and expertise to create a successful outcome. We also considered how that first article on LinkedIn back in October 2018 had led to some strong connections and supporters for the Summit.

During February 2020 we reached back out to Deloitte and a number of its management consulting peers, A&L Goodbody and others in the legal fraternity and published our followup call-to-action article on February 29th. We’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction and support we’ve received. Accenture, Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PWC listened and all signed up to help. At the time of writing we have three of Ireland’s leading commercial law firms signed up in support and the call-to-action article brought forward volunteers for our initial Development Advisory Board: individuals from a variety of backgrounds committed to developing the cause of Emerald. All of this on a pro-bono basis.

Our conversations with the public sector continued in parallel with great support from Government CIO, Barry Lowry and his team at the OGCIO. In early March we issued the following statement “On March 4th 2020, we confirmed a “heads of agreement” to work with the OGCIO to create a sandbox environment where we might test the integration of an Emerald pilot system with the newly planned eGovernment “MyData Portal”, which will be the gateway for citizen access to their government credentials and data. In time, this will be a one-stop shop for all citizens to access. The Government and Irish Life will fund their respective elements of the immediate development work and licencing required to make this happen, with an initial view to a showcase presentation of this by end 2020.” Irish Life began to fund the first dedicated fulltime resources and the technology required to make the Emerald side of this pilot a reality.

Our focus for the next period is two-fold. Firstly, to progress the pilot as a working model of what a solution of this type would look and work like. This will involve at least Irish Life and the OGCIO, but we are also in talks with other key players who could bring quality credentials (which are the key to a viable ecosystem). Our goal here is to have something real to demonstrate, allowing prospective users touch and feel the solution and making it easier for those who ‘need to see, to believe’ to visit our Field of Dreams.

The second focus area is in the development of our Blueprint Roadmap document.

The Blueprint

Successfully launching a national digital credentials initiative needs lots of high-quality thinking. We’ve been lucky to recruit some excellent thinkers (and doers) to this cause. The idea is that we’ll establish several discrete workgroups that over the next few months will attempt to consider the core questions that need to be asked and answered to establish a successful foundation for Emerald. The outputs of this ‘design phase’ will be published in a blueprint roadmap document, the draft outline of which is depicted below.

We’ve formed five workgroups to get this started:

  1. Customer Experience, Proposition and Brand: considering the core use cases for Emerald; where we could make most impact and how we’d achieve adoption at critical mass.

  2. Technology: what technology is out there? What are the core standards and interoperability considerations; what is required to meet the customer experience and core use case requirements? Ultimately, we are looking for a short-list or preferred technology recommendation to take to the implementation phase.

  3. Strategy, Scope and Governance: What does the overall proposition require to be successful and how do we organise for a successful project and ecosystem?

  4. Commercial and Operating Model: We envisage a not-for-profit vehicle being our preferred outcome here, but what style of entity and ongoing funding would be required to keep Emerald alive, operational and secure? And how might that work?

  5. Legal, Regulatory and Compliance: many of the streams raise questions that need legal support and an understanding of regulation and compliance requirements. This stream exists to provide that expertise and guidance.

Our blueprint streams are populated by a selection of representatives from the Consultancies, our Development Advisory Board, Legal Firms and the original Emerald “core team”. The first meetings of these groups have kicked off in late April / early May and we are working towards having early drafts of the Blueprint emerging over the summer period.

We expect that we’ll need to expand the groups as we progress, forming new subgroups such as a Security subgroup to carefully consider the security vulnerabilities in any proposed solutions, and gathering further expertise as we progress along our journey. We will update you on interim blueprint progress when we have more to share.

In the meantime, we’d welcome expressions of interest or opinions on any aspect of our activities, if you feel you have expertise or perspectives that could help. If you are a technology solution vendor operating in this space, then feel free to pass on your details and we’ll relay those on to the Technology stream to consider on their long list.

Our journey so far has been a story of time and effort generously offered and gratefully received: looking to make Emerald a reality for the benefit of all. We are very keen to see this great collaboration continue.

What else is new?

We created a LinkedIn Group in parallel with the publication of the “.. the journey from Electrification to a Digital Trust Framework ..” to allow for easier sharing of more regular updates with interested parties.

In late April we published our Vision Whitepaper, which explains in plain English what an Emerald-enabled world would look and feel like. We’d been using early drafts of this with our wider stakeholder group and it’s great to get this version published more widely. Your feedback is welcome.

We hired our first full-time Emerald technologists with thanks to Irish Life and they will be working on the aforementioned pilot with the OGCIO but also building out demo solutions which will allow us to build our online collateral.

All going well we will launch our website emerald.ie later in May which will provide a one-stop shop to pick up on the latest in our story and hear about informal and formal milestones on each aspect of our journey.

What’s next and how can you help?

We have a busy few months ahead. One of the fruits of part-time, pro bono effort is that we will be fitting this in alongside or as part of our day jobs. That will require focus in order to get decent work done in a short timeframe.

There is room to get more expertise involved so don’t be shy to offer if you have an interest and some time.

Once we have a draft Blueprint, we’ll be looking for volunteer reviewers to find everything from typos to flaws in our thinking and things we missed. Even if you do not get involved in the working groups that’s a fantastic way to make a material contribution. Reach out to join our reviewers list.

Many companies and individuals mentioned above are volunteering their time and effort to make this initiative a success. This is even more impressive as we face the unanticipated challenges of the Coronavirus. At some point we’ll need to add to the full-time resources required to get this initiative over the line. Irish Life has provided in the region of €300k in core funding this year primarily focussed on the pilot technology and resourcing activities. This is in addition to internal volunteers taking their place in the grand coalition. We’ll be working to grow participation in providing the resources required to make Emerald a reality.

We’ll be reaching out to encourage further participation in our activities, encouraging more of you to take part in subgroups or other blueprint activities and for those that aren’t best served by getting directly involved in a “hands-on” manner, we’ll welcome donations to the fund to underpin dedicated resourcing and other activities towards launch in 2021.

As we re-emerge from the post-Covid19 world, initiatives like Emerald that promise a boost to GDP and delivering ease in day-to-day activities, will be among the basket of good ideas we need to get going again.

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