For too long in Pakistan, decision-makers at the helm of affairs have relied on their intuition or what they call ‘golden gut’ to make decisions. Important calls by ministers and bureaucrats have been based not on real time or legacy data, but on experience and unaided judgment. ‘Not anymore’ was my immediate response when I took over NADRA, which houses one of the world’s largest multi-biometric citizens’ database. Over the years, I have come to realise the significance of the wonders that can be derived from successful database management.
Most ministries in Pakistan have massive amounts of data at their disposal, yet fail to utilise it meaningfully. At NADRA, a powerful new IT tool, analytics, is enabling federal and provincial government departments to leverage their data in key management decisions and processes with impressive results. As NADRA now uses real time data more effectively to glean valuable analytical insights, we have learnt that good governance, erosion of corruption and improved service delivery are not distant dreams.
When I joined NADRA in 2008, my first goal was to utilise data analytics for the good of the most vulnerable, poorest segments of Pakistan. I was always sceptical of the Zakat distribution system. Overseas Pakistanis send thousands of dollars every year. My friend, Zamurd Khan, then newly- appointed chairman of the Zakat and Baitul Mal funds was up to the challenge. I got hold of the Zakat distribution data from 1999 to 2007 and reconciled it with the citizens’ database at NADRA. We ran various data analytics techniques and, lo and behold, found out that our worst fears were true. The Pervez Musharraf regime misappropriated billions of Zakat money by not targeting it properly. There were government employees, overseas Pakistanis, members of the Zakat and Ushr committees, people having passports, getting Zakat multiple times. Hence, by making use of data analytics, we were able to weed out the undeserving, target real beneficiaries and channel money where it was supposed to — the Zakat-deserving individuals and families. The same model is now being implemented in provincial governments. Zakat and Ushr department of the Sindh government has realised the power of analytics and collaborated with NADRA to disburse Zakat to the deserving. The Punjab government has also contacted us and it looks like the same model will be deployed there soon.
Devising a tax policy to broaden the tax net and find tax evaders, who were forcing poverty on the rest of the nation, was another initiative of NADRA. Tax policy debates are about how we pay for the things we do together for our communities, families and economy. This includes the roads, bridges and buses that help us get around and allow our economy to function; the schools that educate our children and strengthen our future workforce; the police and fire protection that keep our neighbourhoods safe; the environmental safeguards that maintain clean air and water; and the safety net that protects us when we fall on hard times. By using data analytics, NADRA and the FBR triggered a healthy debate in society and in parliament. Finding 3.6 million tax dodgers was a result of data mining in the NADRA database. We learnt that 1,611,153 frequent travellers, 56,421 residents of posh localities, 584,730 individuals having multiple bank accounts, and 19,149 owners of expensive vehicles, do not have a national tax number, hence, are not in the tax net.
Likewise, NADRA is embarking on reforming the pension disbursement system of Pakistan. Initial data analysis reveals that some pension disbursement agencies rely mostly on a manual system and don’t have CNIC information of the pensioner. During analysis, we are now finding out that some people are getting three pensions!
In recent years, NADRA has most significantly helped with the analysis of the population for the Benazir Income Support Programme. This initiative provides financial assistance to women belonging to underprivileged families in rural areas. For this purpose, over 4.3 million nomination forms were received from parliamentarians. We were then asked to use our database to analyse each nomination and ensure its eligibility, after which, 2.3 million people were declared as eligible beneficiaries. During the process, there were various apprehensions regarding political repercussions of making a large number of people ineligible, but the power of analytics was trusted and stringent checks ensured that the final list of beneficiaries was closest to the truth.
NADRA has also helped in disbursement of the Pakistan Card to internally displaced persons after the floods in recent years and the pension disbursement scheme of the government. Similarly, a strict set of criteria were set for analysis, which helped in correctly identifying the deserving beneficiaries.
For a developing nation like Pakistan, the use of these tools proves to be of much significance due to a large number of projects taking place simultaneously. Hosting data and records of about 96 per cent of the adult population of Pakistan, which is over 90 million people, NADRA’s database can be used for various analytical purposes to help the public sector. The large database at our disposal alleviates the need for any ground research; the data covers all major aspects of a person’s social standing and creates links between family members in the form of a web. The idea of data analysis is nothing new to Pakistan. However, the use of a national level database to analyse the needs of the population has only been made possible after a number of technological advancements that were made over the past few years.
I had always understood the concepts and rationality behind using analytical tools for various purposes; however, during the last few years of my work at NADRA, I have come to fully understand the importance and significance that these tools hold. Seeing their application in the public sector on such large scales and for the uplift of the community, I have started to visualise more benefits of these tools. With the launch of the new smart national identity card, the possibility of applying these analytical tools have become virtually endless.
In the future, these tools can be further enhanced and made useful by allowing various government departments to link their databases with that of ours. Similarly, this development will also allow us to extend our support to newer developmental projects, in terms of population analysis. These tools have enhanced our capabilities of examining each and every decision that we make. Socrates said, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”, and I would argue that the unexamined decision isn’t worth making.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2013.
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