Gavi, NEC, and Simprints to deploy world’s first scalable child fingerprint identification solution to boost immunisation in developing countries
It is a sad fact that, each year approximately 5.6 million 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 developed immunity against infectious diseases. It is often the case that once an illness sets in without vaccination, it can quickly become serious and lead 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 the number of doses.
In order to make this possible in more countries around the world, NEC is working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (hereafter “Gavi”), which promotes vaccination programs in developing countries, and has embarked on a new challenge involving fingerprint identification for the very young.
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.
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 Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Bank, the vaccination industry and various research institutions.
Gavi has focused on developing nations, and have administered vaccines to 700 million children, 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.
Despite these results, issues persist.
The number of children who have not been fully vaccinated around the world is estimated to be over 19 million. As a result of this, an estimated 1.5 million children die yearly from preventable diseases.
One of the main reasons for this is that one in three children in the developing world has no formal ID. 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 half of all children under the age of five have no birth certificate and therefore don’t “officially” exist.
By using fingerprint identification to accurately identify individuals, thereby strengthen vaccination programs, NEC believe we can drastically improve the consistency, effectiveness, and scale of the Gavi vaccination programs.
The most accurate fingerprint technology in the world
Gavi adopted a fingerprint identification solution from the UK-based company Simprints Technology Ltd. (hereafter “Simprints”), a start-up that emerged from Cambridge University in the UK and which provides a smartphone-based fingerprint application that connects to a Bluetooth fingerprint scanner. The system can be used offline, making it suited for use in developing nations without requiring internet presence.
The major challenge is that while this solution was able to identify adult fingerprints, the target group being children under the age of five is much more difficult, without relying on the linking of children to their parents. To solve this Gavi turned to NEC’s “Bio-IDiom” platform. Being highly rated in benchmark tests sponsored by the US government, Bio-Idiom excels in speed and accuracy, ranking Number 1 in eight consecutive 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.
Achieving an unprecedented 99% identification rate for children’s fingerprints
NEC has a 40-year history of research and development in fingerprint identification, working with police and law enforcement organisations. The original aim was the analysis and identification of fingerprints left behind at crime scenes. Since then, this technology has been refined, developed, and perfected with the expertise of a large number of NEC researchers. As a result, it is the most accurate in the world
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 (see Figure 1 below).
Children’s fingertips are also extremely soft. Just pressing a child’s 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.
As part of the process of creating a system capable of accurately identifying a child’s fingerprint, the team continued had to develop existing technology so as to accurately identify fingerprints of children even as they grow. “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.
Helping to give a personal ID to those children who have so far been left behind
Future prospects also continue to develop. Gavi, Simprints, and NEC commenced a 12-month test of this system from January 2020, involving approximately 5,000 children aged under five in Bangladesh, and 15,000 children in Tanzania. The aim is to verify that the child fingerprint identification system can withstand even the harshest of environments. “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.
“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,” explains Saori Tsubakino from the International Relations Group at NEC’s Global Relations Division of the project’s future outlook.
The significance of this technology is therefore not only limited to children. It is said that as many as one billion people worldwide do not have a personal, verifiable ID. Accurate personal authentication is essential for providing everyone fair and equal access to health care, education, and financial services. By accurately identifying these individuals, it will be possible to directly give a personal ID to those people who have so far been left behind.
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 with unprecedented global benefits.
 UNICEF, “Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2017” P1, October 2017
 NIST: National Institute of Standards and Technology Result of the benchmark tests sponsored by the US government