For centuries, whenever a traveller has needed to cross a border some form of identification has been required. Starting with a simple letter of introduction confirming the bearer's identity, evolving into the increasingly standardised passport documentation we are familiar with today. What has made that possible is the harmonisation of data standards between many countries and international bodies.

A triumph of international cooperation

The protocols for current technologies used in most passports are a great example of international cooperation and coordination. The International Civil Aviation Organization's Doc. 9303 (ICAO 9303) clearly outlines standardisations for the Machine Readable Travel Documents (MRTD) – protocol to which almost all passports adhere for presenting most personal information such as names, dates of birth, etc. The benefit, of course, is largely friction-free cross-border travel for most travellers.

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Health standards to follow suit

It has taken many decades to reach this degree of standardisation. Now, we are on the verge of requiring similar standardisations, protocols, and processes for health information. One such initiative, the Good Health Pass Interoperability Blueprint suggests a way forward through setting the standards and design principles that could guide the development of internationally recognised, safe and secure health certification. But in the absence of such standards being immediately adopted, we are seeing some countries creating documents (digital or paper-based) that capture information about a citizen's health status – including various routine travel destination immunization requirements – and particularly whether an individual has been vaccinated for COVID-19. But one thing lacking in the health domain is the standardisation of data.

Many countries are setting up their systems and documents to address COVID-19 immunization status as a priority. As a result, we will quickly reach a point where border agencies will have to deal with a huge variety of documents and the different data they contain. And that will inevitably create considerable friction at the border.

In the absence of international standards, the interoperability between different 'countries' data is likely to be through bilateral agreements. The question is, how can that be expanded to encompass a much broader set of standard data and documentation?

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The trusted supply chain is a key concept here. Every item of data that enters a trusted system can be verifiable from start to finish.

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Digital impact

We don't have the luxury of time that it has taken for passports to reach such a high degree of global recognition. Fortunately, digital technologies can accelerate progress to standardisation. In just ten years, for example, digital passports have overtaken what had previously required highly specialised printing and manufacturing techniques to achieve unique characteristics. Special papers, ultra-violet printing and other methods had been used to create unique and hard to forge documents. All that is now largely redundant thanks to digital information embedded in the chip in a passport.

Taking this one stage further, using apps rather than paper documents means that newer data standards and security features can be updated instantly. That means information can be rapidly updated to reflect changes on an as-needed basis. However, it will also be important to ensure digital solutions don't exclude those that lack access to the technology used.

Critical security

Of course, the security, required to make apps available, needs special attention. Making the chain of trust from production to consumption is especially critical. For example, blockchain could be used to ensure that every link in the chain is trusted. With health data written into the blockchain, the app reads that information, with all data directly linked to the source, so its trust is as secure as possible and fully documented. The trusted supply chain is a key concept here. Every item of data that enters a trusted system can be verifiable from start to finish.

Standards for a post-pandemic world

Vaccination programs are now rolling out and travel is cautiously opening up again in some parts of the world. But we are likely to live in a world where testing and health status verification will be essential for some time to come. It's critical, therefore, that all parties involved in travel – border agencies, public health agencies, airport operators, airlines, and others – get together to focus on long-term solutions for trusted data standards that can meet global needs. 

We do not have the luxury of taking decades for standardisation to happen as we did with passports. How can we accelerate progress for health data?  Reach out to me directly to discuss.

Read more blogs from Gerco Landman:

Gerco Landman

Senior Manager – Consulting, Public Service, Australia & New Zealand

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