AFFINID is a Singapore-based technology company founded by global investment firm Temasek in 2020. Affinidi uses decentralized technologies to enable the creation and sharing of verifiable digital credentials, giving individuals and organizations control over their data personal.
Since its launch, the company’s work has focused on solutions related to Covid health credentials. Affinidi works in partnership with The Commons Project and announced in August that Etihad Airways was the first airline to use its healthcare network assessment program.
But the potential of this technology goes far beyond sharing and verifying vaccination and test data. To learn more about these opportunities, PhocusWire spoke with Toby Berger, Director of Travel at Affinidi, who explains why he thinks all travel industry stakeholders should embrace decentralized technologies. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
Q: Can you start by explaining how digital and verifiable credentials can be used in travel, beyond the current health data application?
I think there are two elements. The first is how to make the traveler experience much more seamless, without having to pull out documents all the time. How can we combine your passport and your travel ID with, say, biometrics so that when you walk through an airport you get a face scan and they know it’s Toby Berger, it’s his passport, and he is from Canada and he is allowed entry into our country only on the basis of the facial scan and the match with this digital travel document.
Then you can extend that to hotels and other experiences within the traveler ecosystem, linking payments and more. All of these verifiable credentials can then be stored in a digital wallet. It’s the first piece.
The second room simply offers a much more personalized experience. So if I like to stay on higher floors and away from elevators when I stay in hotels, when I go to check into a hotel for the first time, I can give them access to this wallet that I have and l hotel can know that’s what I prefer. I get a room on a high floor away from the elevator and that experience is better for me.
We can store my entire travel history in this wallet. So when I check into the hotel they know how valuable I am as a guest. Then they can potentially improve my experience or offer additional benefits because they want me to come back to their hotel.
I think there are a ton of opportunities there. I think we need to solve the first problem first, which is how to create a seamless experience, and then move on to customization.
Q: What are the challenges in making this vision a reality?
You need industry, you need technology, you need governments. The opportunity is probably to start with a few large governments – I am thinking of some in Europe and the United States – to take the initiative. I think there are challenges in markets where governments are offloading a lot of their responsibility onto airlines. There’s kind of a lack of incentives for them to necessarily get involved.
But really, you need governments and the aviation industry to come together, and technology players, and also to be open to playing together. The industry really needs to come together and want to solve the problem as a group instead of worrying about its individual interests.
Q: Do you feel things are moving in the right direction with that?
I think everyone wants it. I think the challenge is who is going to direct it? We talk to all of these parties that I mentioned – governments, tech companies, airlines. The industry has never had to come together like this before.
So to answer your question, I’m hopeful. I think the conversations are happening. Could they happen faster? Absoutely. But there are tech companies like ours and others that are there to support that and make sure everything is done the right way.
Q: Assuming these solutions start to grow and become commonplace, what could be the impact on distribution and more particularly on intermediaries such as online travel agencies? Putting control of data in the hands of the traveler could really change the dynamic, right?
I don’t think it’s only about OTAs. I think any type of organization or business that relies on customer data for all of its business is somehow at risk. But there are opportunities for any organization. Even if you are an intermediary, you can still add value if you adopt these technologies. There is room for everyone in the ecosystem. I think OTAs provide a lot of value and they can continue to do so by providing this personalized experience.
But if an organization thinks that by locking down customer data – while other companies allow their customers to bring their data and make it interoperable – if you’re the only one not allowing that, I think that’s This is where the risk lies for any business, whether it’s an OTA or even a hotel chain. This is not going to play out in the next two years. Everyone wants to solve the pandemic and make sure travelers travel again. But I think longer term, this idea of keeping customer data to yourself, I think there’s a lot of risk.
Q: Do you think it will be more difficult in a certain sector of the industry?
Airlines are probably the most difficult simply because it’s more complex and more regulated…I think the biggest opportunity is probably in the hospitality industry. This is where your preferences and customization and all those things can… have a bigger impact on the travel experience.
I also think there’s a significant opportunity for smaller players, whether they’re smaller or independent hotels or smaller tour operators, to have a big impact here. Because this is where data ownership isn’t as critical and necessary to building a business, so having no data is no longer an obstacle. They have never been so dependent on it. [Whereas] Many large travel agencies, whether OTAs, airlines or hotel chains, have massive teams trying to create these personalized experiences or make sure their targeting matches their advertising.
Q: Can you give us an example of how this might work for, say, smaller, independent tour and activity providers?
What if the customer could take their data and… upload it to a website, and websites could plan the perfect trip and work with these family tour operators in any country. For example, we have technology that allows fully decentralized management, almost like a database, and we all have our [health] clinics that we can verify on this decentralized database.
We could do the same thing in the travel industry where you have all these experience providers, and as a traveler I come to this decentralized database of experiences and plug in my preferences and all of a sudden I get a list of opportunities or experiences that match what I’m looking for.
It’s coming, and it’s about whether you embrace these decentralized organizations. This could also be an opportunity for an OTA, but the OTA must allow the customer to take any data they have created on their website or within their organization and move it to another. It cannot be a one-way exchange.
Q: What should travel brands do today to prepare for the coming era of decentralized technology and verifiable credentials? If you worked for an airline or a hotel company, what would you do to prepare for it?
I think you have to accept the idea that being a walled garden won’t help you in the long run. I think you first need to think about what it means if our customers can remove their travel history from our platform? Think about framing it like that, and then start to understand how do we play in a larger ecosystem? What does it mean if hotels, airlines and other downstream operators can exchange this kind of information? What does this mean for the traveler? And how do we then create these seamless experiences so that travelers can move between these carriers, and the carriers can then serve them better? But I think they have to get first [rid of] this idea that the data is theirs and the customer is theirs. Because nowadays, most companies think that the customer belongs to them.
Then it’s about starting to do small tasks. Partner with a tech company like ours or others who have these new wallets. And say hello Mr. Traveler, once you upload your preferences there, come stay at our hotels, and unlock those preferences, we’re going to give you a more personalized experience, or we’ll give you an upgrade or something. These are small tests they could do to understand the impact on the business.
Q: To conclude, what are your prospects for the future? Where will we be in five years?
The pandemic is accelerating this. The very idea of digital, verifiable credentials was quite nascent before the pandemic. People were talking, but it was this fringe group. Now it’s front and center. Right now it’s mostly about solving the vaccine and testing stuff. But we’re already starting to see the seamless part of the travel experience moving, airports doing biometrics and all that… hotels doing seamless check-out. I think personalization is the next phase.
Five years from now I can definitely see, assuming we’re not in the same state with the pandemic and new variants, a lot more movement in terms of people having digital wallets for credentials, history trips, loyalty.
Decentralization and interoperability are not exclusive to operators. It is important to note. Anyone in an industry that delivers value to customers and is ready to play, there are opportunities.
* This article first appeared in Phocuswire.
• Featured Image Credit: Peach_iStock/Getty Images