UIDAI: Inside the World’s Largest Data Management Project
Image: Corbis; Vidyanand Kamat
hen Ranjana Sonawane, a 30-year-old housewife from Tembhli, a tribal village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra was allotted the UID number 7824-7431-7884, the team at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) would have been quite justified in feeling a little pleased with themselves. A small team — 160 people — had achieved the first milestone of a very ambitious project in a very short time.
The UIDAI is a government body mandated with the task of assigning every single one of India’s 1.2 billion citizens a Unique Identity (UID) number.
If you’re beginning to wonder what the big deal really is, consider this: By 2014, the government wants half of India’s population to be allotted UID numbers. To do that, the Authority will photograph a staggering 600 million Indians, scan 1.2 billion irises, collect six billion fingerprints and record 600 million addresses.
Let’s put this simply. No system in the world has handled anything on this scale. Period.
Think about it.
When the 600 millionth person is assigned a unique 12-digit UID, the system that generates it will have to compare it against 599,999,999 photographs, 1,199,999,998 irises and 12,999,999,990 fingerprints to ensure the number is indeed unique.
By the time the system reaches out to cover every Indian resident, the complexity, well, doubles. When in full flow, the system will be adding a million names to its database every single day until the task is complete.
Now, here’s the question: There’s nobody in the world who’s handled anything like this. Because it is government-owned, there are no private profits or stock options to be had for cracking the problem. In fact, if the current government loses at the next polls, there is a chance the next one may think the idea a waste of time and money and simply disband the project, and the team may lose five years of their lives.
Assuming for a moment all goes well, the only tangible gain most of the team on the project will have is the pleasure of knowing they worked on the most complex data management problem the world has ever known. And perhaps the warm glow that comes with knowing they tried to change the world. After which, they will go back to wherever it is they came from. How many people do you know who’d have the spunk to be in full-time on an assignment like this?
When Raj Mashruwala heard that the PM had parachuted in Nandan Nilekani to head UIDAI, he immediately sent him a congratulatory note and offered to assist. Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys, was Mashruwala’s junior at IIT Bombay. Mashruwala, 58, now an investor and mentor to a few companies in Silicon Valley, had first moved to the US in 1976 to pursue a Masters in engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He stayed on, founded a few companies in the manufacturing software space and did well for himself. Nilekani wrote back right away and asked Mashruwala to join him and an assorted bunch of people from various parts of the world to discuss a broad framework for the project.
The two had a common friend: Srikanth Nadhamuni, an engineer from the University of Mysore who, like Mashruwala, had pursued a Masters in the US and had put in 15 years in Silicon Valley. In 2003, Nilekani and Nadhamuni co-founded eGovernments Foundation, a non-profit organisation to help municipalities deliver better services to citizens using IT. When Nilekani left Infosys to head the UID project, he invited Nadhamuni to head the technology centre.
At Nilekani’s invitation, Mashruwala flew down to Bangalore in July last year, to attend a conference organised by the UIDAI. In the room, there were bankers, professors from Ivy League colleges, technology professionals, people from NGOs, even representatives from the Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). And of course Nilekani’s many friends and acquaintances, such as Nachiket Mor, co-President, ICICI Foundation.
The diversity floored Mashruwala.
Ram Sevak Sharma, the designated CEO — or the Director General as he is called at the UIDAI — graduated with a masters in mathematics from IIT Kanpur in 1976. He went on to join the Indian Administrative Services (IAS) in 1978. Sharma was perhaps the first officer in Bihar to introduce a DCM 10-D computer (in Begu Sarai where he was the district magistrate). He computerised, in succession, the treasury department in Purnia district, Bihar’s public grievance system and the National Rural Employment Program. His passion for technology pushed him to take a sabbatical from the IAS in 2000 and pursue a degree in computer science at the University of California, Riverside.