By Victoria Welborn, George Ingram
In the 2020 “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres highlighted digital public goods (DPGs) as a key lever in maximizing the full potential of digital technology to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while also helping overcome some of its persistent challenges.
The Roadmap rightly pointed to the fact that, as with any new technology, there are risks around digital technologies that might be counterproductive to fostering prosperous, inclusive, and resilient societies. In fact, without intentional action by the global community, digital technologies may more naturally exacerbate exclusion and inequality by undermining trust in critical institutions, allowing consolidation of control and economic value by the powerful, and eroding social norms through breaches of privacy and disinformation campaigns.
Just as the pandemic has served to highlight the opportunity for digital technologies to reimagine and expand the reach of government service delivery, so too has it surfaced specific risks that are hallmarks of closed societies and authoritarian states—creating new pathways to government surveillance, reinforcing existing socioeconomic inequalities, and enabling the rapid proliferation of disinformation. Why then—in the face of these real risks—focus on the role of digital public goods in development?
As the Roadmap noted, DPGs are “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the SDGs.”1 There are a number of factors why such products have unique potential to accelerate development efforts, including widely recognized benefits related to more efficient and cost effective implementation of technology-enabled development programming.
Historically, the use of digital solutions for development in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been supported by donor investments in sector-specific technology systems, reinforcing existing silos and leaving countries with costly, proprietary software solutions with duplicative functionality and little interoperability across government agencies, much less underpinning private sector innovation. These silos are further codified through the development of sector-specific maturity models and metrics. An effective DPG ecosystem has the potential to enable the reuse and improvement of existing tools, thereby lowering overall cost of deploying technology solutions and increasing efficient implementation.
Beyond this proven reusability of DPGs and the associated cost and deployment efficiencies, do DPGs have even more transformational potential? Increasingly, there is interest in DPGs as drivers of inclusion and products through which to standardize and safeguard rights; these opportunities are less understood and remain unproven. To begin to fill that gap, this paper first examines the unique value proposition of DPGs in supporting open societies by advancing more equitable systems and by codifying rights. The paper then considers the persistent challenges to more fully realizing this opportunity and offers some recommendations for how to address these challenges.
Why DPGs Matter to Open Societies
While the narrative around DPGs has often migrated to their open-source aspects, it is important to acknowledge the relative openness of a product does not necessarily define the extent to which it serves the public good. Open-source products can just as easily be deployed by a private actor for commercial purposes. Likewise, open-source software is not necessarily better or worse at creating the privacy protections and other necessary safeguards for building trust in digital solutions. In other words, leveraging DPGs to support open societies is less about the individual technology solution and more about how the technology is designed, deployed, and governed. This fact is amplified when DPGs are deployed as inputs into digital public infrastructure.
To understand how and the extent to which DPGs have the potential to support more open societies, it is important to acknowledge the broad spectrum of ways in which DPGs are deployed—ranging from highly niche digital services to foundational digital platforms upon which other digital products and services are built.2 DPGs across this spectrum can enable more efficient development programming, but it is an input into the foundational platforms—most notably digital identity, payments, and data exchange, referred to here as digital public infrastructure (DPI)—that DPGs have an opportunity to play a formative role at societal scale.
During consultations with global experts from the technology industry, government, donors, and civil society, a number of common themes emerged that highlighted how DPGs, when leveraged as inputs into DPI, can contribute to open societies.3
Equal opportunity to participate. Open societies are characterized by equal opportunity to participate in social interactions and access services. While the internet began as a publicly managed network with an open-source ethos that encouraged participation, collaboration, and experimentation, much of what is available online today is limited by proprietary systems and copyright protections, making it increasingly challenging and costly to access information and participate in digital spaces.4 The “open” characteristics of DPGs represent an opportunity to create common standards for accessibility, ensuring more equitable access to systems and more readily available data. When these features are applied in the creation of DPI, essential services become more equitable. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need and business case for efficient and effective health services validated the necessity for trustworthy DPI.
Agency. Open societies are characterized by self-determination—the opportunity to represent oneself in society and determine if and how to change one’s role in society. In establishing DPI, this sense of agency begins with systems that consider local context and need. The world of geopolitics is not binary. Most countries want choices, and thus will resent and reject “either/or” options. Countries are looking for a package of digital solutions at the right price. The DPG community of governments, companies, and civil society organizations committed to open-source, citizen-centric digital solutions need to develop digital platforms that can be adapted to local needs and priorities, but have safeguards built in to ensure data privacy and prevent abuse by public and private operators.
Open-source solutions are becoming more available and governments are becoming more familiar with this option, giving them the choice to potentially transition away from the primary reliance on commercial vendors. This unlocks the ability for governments to have more decisionmaking power and agency over the technologies they choose, as well as a say in how it is developed, deployed, and governed. While government agency over digital platforms does not necessarily equate to individual agency in digital spaces, it is a prerequisite in order for individuals to exert preferences or accrue benefit.
By instituting a strong DPI strategy with clear accompanying policies, countries can set the rules of the game allowing for better, more interoperable digital solutions. Additionally, DPGs enhance the opportunity for countries to collaborate on common tools thereby reducing some of the challenges associated with either reliance on commercial vendors or maintaining custom code bases.5
Choice. Open societies are characterized by competitive markets that bestow choice to individuals, entrepreneurs, and small businesses. LMICs are looking for safe and effective digital solutions that do not force them to take sides in geopolitics, and all at the right price. Furthermore, decentralization is a key component of DPGs and enables DPI to be built in ways that mitigate the risk of private monopolization of core essential social systems. When decentralization is leveraged in the way that products are developed, it facilitates innovation, prevents monopoly, and circumvents authoritarian control.
Trust. Open societies are characterized by transparent institutions and governments accountable to their citizenry. While private technology providers can be valuable collaborators in the DPG ecosystem—contributing experience and technical expertise—the private sector is not always equipped to deliver public sector outcomes.6 In some cases, this is true because of misaligned incentives (e.g., prioritizing commercial gains over public benefit). In other instances, this is true because governments are not organized or resourced to deploy private solutions in ways that further national development objectives. Too often, reliance on private solutions leads to vendor lock-in and exacerbates risks of misuse or abuse of digital solutions and their resultant data. By creating common standards, ensuring adherence to privacy laws, and explicitly designing for development outcomes, DPGs have the potential to align DPI with human rights and governance frameworks that enhance trust in technology and data use.
Countries are only one election away from a drift toward authoritarianism. The goal should be security by design—governance safeguards from misuse and data privacy need to be designed into the structure of the software. Trust is essential to the acceptance and use of digital solutions, but many populations do not trust the institutions that control them. Trust through data privacy must be built into the design of the software.
For example, data access permissions are fully integrated into the technology design choices of Estonia’s X-Road, the country’s data exchange infrastructure, to effectively automate compliance with data sharing policies. Furthermore, the transparency by design features of X-Road enable citizens to understand when, why, and by whom their data is being accessed—a key safeguard that not only provides individuals insights into the movement and use of their data, but also creates a mechanism for recourse in the case of errors or misuse.
As noted above, the ability to leverage DPGs to fully realize these potential benefits requires additional testing and validation. Fortunately, the consultations that informed this paper also revealed increasing consensus around the persistent challenges to pursuing these opportunities.
Lack of clear regulatory frameworks. Software development can roughly be broken down to the following lifecycle: development, testing, deployment, and maintenance/iteration. When it comes to countries’ DPI, many currently find themselves in the development phase despite the lack of global standards to help govern DPI. Now is a critical moment as more and more countries are beginning to develop and adopt these technologies. Not only to ensure that the principles of transparency, inclusion, and data security are embedded in the technologies, but to also regulate that each stage of the lifecycle meets international standards so that transnational adoption and scalability can be better achieved.
Local capacity constraints. As governments increasingly seek to build DPI, the broader ecosystem must also be ready to receive this technology. Investment must be made in the capacity of public, private, and civil society, specifically through the training of local talent, to implement, integrate, maintain, and own their country’s DPI. For example, as open-source software operates principally on a voluntary basis, a greater volunteer base must be ready and able to support the development, maintenance, and iteration of core DPG platforms. Local capacity development can be extended to governments, system integrators,8 and the greater workforce in the awareness of and propensity to adopt these technologies to the actual building of these technologies and keeping revenue streams and solutions local. As this capacity development grows, particularly looking at civil society and government, then adequate measures of accountability and watchdogging can take place. A healthy civil society is crucial in overseeing that the tenets of openness are being upheld to govern data and effectively deliver services in order to monitor that the technologies are not being abused or used to exploit sensitive information.
Sustainability of investments. Open-source technologies can be challenging for donors to properly invest in due to their core principle of decentralization. The disparate nature of open-source communities poses a risk to long-term sustainability as maintenance requires centralized funding, support, and governance. Due to the current funding models, for the products that do secure funding, they produce too many disconnected, unsustainable products. Both the marketplace and donor models encourage the development of hundreds of new digital solutions and support the early stages of their implementation but not their long-term maintenance. Of all of the various digital health solutions, only a very few have been sustained over 20 years. The solutions that have been successful over the long haul are marked by sustained investment by a core group that has remained true and stable and by a continuous loop of learning and iteration. However, defining success is still subjective. This is because standards currently do not exist to measure or landscape digital infrastructure globally, proving reliable measurement and analysis of “good” DPI to also be non-existent.9
Fragmentation. The existing ecosystem of support for DPGs is fragmented and fractured among bilateral and multilateral donors, private foundations, civil society organizations, and for-profit companies, so there is a lack of focus on a few key platforms. This fragmentation not only hurts the whole DPI landscape, it also hurts individual countries. The lack of established standards and inconsistent principles greatly hinders scalability and the speed of adoption and implementation. When these technologies are not designed in a manner of scalability and adequate interoperability, low- and middle-income countries suffer. This interoperability provides an opportunity for adoption at an affordable cost as countries are not required to build a system from scratch, or rely on a potentially untrustworthy third party to build their system. As DPI and DPGs house some of the most sensitive personal data, building transparency into the systems and international standards that govern these technologies is critical.
As in other aspects of development and public policy, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and the answer generally rests with finding the right balance in melding the strengths of various options. It has been noted that donors are in one of the best positions to shape the success of these technologies and to facilitate the quality of their impact. Donor organizations bear a significant amount of responsibility for advancing the ethical use and health of digital technology, ensuring that access and equity are designed in public interest technologies, and that both governments and the public trust these technologies.
- Commit to safeguards and inclusion. There is a need for donors to counter the narrative that the public sector cannot be trusted to design and govern technical solutions in the interest of people. The public sector has proven examples of developing and maintaining public interest technology securely and without abuse and exploitation. It is critical that donors familiarize themselves with country examples, as well as the vernacular and operations of DPGs, especially open-source organizations that may be atypical recipients for traditional donor funds. Where there are gaps in definitions, it is also critical that donors take the lead in co-creating these definitions with local technologists to ensure that cohesion and scalability in both the work and the investments are further possible. It is also crucial that donors are aware how technology must be designed with inclusion at its center.
- Develop global norms and principles. Digital solutions can only be designed in a way that bolsters open societies if they are based on a set of agreed-upon norms and principles. Furthermore, as more governments begin to choose DPI and open-source solutions, guidance on developing local regulations, as well as a shared global framework to provide commonality from the financing phase of these technologies and throughout the development lifecycle is critical to 1) allow for transnational and sustainable collaboration, in the spirit of open source, and 2) to ensure that a public interest is at the core of DPI. The DPG Charter, a multistakeholder campaign to mobilize and celebrate commitments to make DPGs a more viable option for DPI, is a step in the right direction. The DPG Charter is consultative and co-created, and thus can set the basis for coalescing stakeholders in order to develop shared norms, frameworks, and impact metrics. This will not only serve as an important tool for governments and civil society watchdogs, but also for donors and the private sector in evaluating trustworthy and sustainable investment.
- Invest in local capacity development. The digital ecosystem is too important to be left solely to governments, which alone runs the risk of bureaucratic delay, lack of political vision, and autocratic abuse. It also cannot solely rely on the private sector, which runs the risk of monopoly control, concentration of wealth, and rent capture. This is where an investment in local talent, both civil society and local technologists, is crucial to ensure the maximum effectiveness of these technologies. For sustainable capacity development, donors should not only target government training, but also work with local universities to ensure that the local workforce is also prepared to address this need.
- Coordinate sustainable investment for open-source technologies. It is well agreed that the funding structure that serves the open-source community does not necessarily best benefit the broader community. There are emerging ideas on what the best solution may look like, but there is consensus that a new structure should focus on the principles of greater transparency and coordination. This format can take a variety of models, but one example of a possible solution involves a dedicated fund that adheres to these principles. A DPG foundation would ideally pool sources from both public and private investment and would focus on a few key digital solutions over the long-term, providing a cost savings of up to 40 percent. This funding model would not only more reliably sustain long-term investment, but would also help to address many of the challenges addressed through the shared development of common building blocks, libraries, architectures, and reducing duplication.10
DPGs and DPI move us away from siloed software solutions and, if robustly developed and maintained, offer unlimited replicability and interoperability that avoid costly reinvention. Looking at the four phases of a traditional product life cycle, it can be assumed that DPGs for DPI are currently in the first phase of market development; this assumption is made because of the continued novel introduction of these technologies to communities they intend to serve, along with governments being made aware of their benefits. As with all new technologies, it is the early adopters who are leading the charge, governments like India who are using DPGs and DPI to enhance economic, social, and political development. That being said, it is during the market development phase of the product life cycle that there are expected to be challenges that will need to be accounted for and solved.
Based on experience and research, our assumption is that these challenges can be better managed if the technologies are developed with proper safeguards, specifically following the principles of inclusion, privacy, transparency, and trust. These principles can help to serve as a North Star in working to contribute to building open, trustworthy, and collaborative societies that produce inclusive services for the benefit of all nations and peoples.
Disclosure: The United Nations Foundation is a donor to the Brookings Global Economy and Development program.
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