Contextualizing Digital Public Goods for Digital Development
Digital Public Goods (DPGs) are goods that anyone can benefit from and are described as open-source software, open data, open artificial intelligence models, open standards, and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices.1 The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Roadmap for Digital Cooperation officially defined a digital public good as “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable international and domestic laws, standards and best practices, and do no harm.” They do no harm by design and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).2 The core characteristic of DPGs is that they are free and open and contribute to national and international digital development. 3
DPG’s emanated as a consequence of the SDGs in 2015. In the same year the United Nations (UN) identified 680 distinct mechanisms related to digital cooperation and how they can be leveraged in attaining the SDGs.4 This led to the convening of a high level expert panel in 2018 by Secretary-General of the UN on Digital Cooperation to consider the ways to address the social, ethical, legal and economic impact of digital technologies while maximizing their benefits and minimizing their harms.5 The main aim of the panel was to advance proposals on strengthening cooperation in the digital space among governments, private sector, civil society, international organizations, academic institutions, the tech community and other relevant stakeholders.6 The panel completed its deliberations in 2019 and submitted a report entitled “The Age of Digital Interdependence” which focused on fostering digital cooperation and advancing digital public goods and recommended the establishment of a broad multi stakeholder alliance involving the UN to create a platform for sharing digital public goods. The platform would engage different talents from tech and create a pool of open source data sets in a manner that respects privacy particularly in areas related to realizing the SDG’s.”7
The panel recommendation propelled the establishment of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) guided by the release of the UNSG Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. The report highlighted digital public goods as essential in unlocking the full potential of digital technologies and data to attain the SDGs, in particular for low- and middle-income countries. In advocating for digital public goods the Alliance was to be guided by a clear mission to advocate for discovery, use and deployment of digital public goods, it further established foundation tools required to achieve their mission and a criteria of standards by which DPGs could be identified and a platform for registration.8
The DPGA developed a set of standards, i.e. the Digital Public Goods Standards, as specifications and guidelines, indicators and requirements that are applied in determining consideration for classification as a digital public good. The indicators include:-
Relevance to Sustainable Development Goals: DPGs must be designed and developed to advance the SDGs and demonstrate such by providing links or documentation;
Use of Approved Open Licenses: DPGs must demonstrate the use of an approved open license;
Ownership of Assets: The DPG produces must be clearly defined and documented;
Platform Independence: When the DPG has mandatory dependencies that create more restrictions than the original license, proving independence from closed components is required;
Documentation-DPGs: Digital public goods require documentation of the source code, use cases, and/or functional requirements. For content collections, this should include all relevant/compatible apps, software, or hardware required to access the content collection, and instructions regarding how to use it;
Mechanism for Extracting Data: Digital public goods with non personally identifiable information (PII) design for possibility of extracting or importing non-PII data and content from the system in a non-proprietary format;
Adherence to Privacy and Applicable Laws: Digital public goods must be designed and developed to comply with applicable privacy laws;
Do No Harm by Design: Digital public goods must be designed to anticipate, prevent, and do no harm by design;
Data Privacy & Security: Digital public goods that collect, store and distribute personally identifiable data, must demonstrate how they ensure the privacy, security and integrity of this data in addition to the steps taken to prevent adverse impacts resulting from its collection, storage and distribution;
Inappropriate and Illegal Content: Digital public goods that collect, store or distribute content must have policies identifying inappropriate and illegal content such as child sexual abuse materials in addition to processes for detecting, moderating, reporting and removing inappropriate/ illegal content; and
Protection from Harassment: If the digital public good facilitates interactions with or between users or contributors there must be a process for users and contributors to protect themselves against grief, abuse, and harassment. The project must have system(s) to address the safety and security of underage users.
Following the establishment of the Alliance, numerous strides have been taken towards advancing DPGs, for instance, the digital public goods pathfinders established under UNICEF. The main aim of the DPG Pathfinders initiative is to lead countries in developing, scaling and investing in DPGs while committing to share their experiences.9
Countries identified as pathfinders include, Kyrgyzstan, Niger, Viet Nam, The Philippines, Ghana, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan who have been utilizing DPGs through health i.e telemedicine, climate programs, equitable digital education systems and financial inclusion.10 Reports from these countries note that in adopting digital public goods as solution tools, specific considerations need to be made such as (i) the importance of capacity building prior to rolling out the digital solution, (ii) internet connectivity which informs the success, and scaling up of the technological solutions that could potentially be DPGs such as, DHIS211 in health, and (iii) the data collection for displaced people (KOBO toolbox), in use in countries such as The Philippines.12
Specific to the African continent, government led support is important in the development of locally developed digital public goods solutions as seen in Niger where the government has led efforts in supporting DPGs in health and education. This has been through supporting the establishment of the African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) and a curriculum module specific to the needs in the Sahel region aimed at creating a trained workforce in drone operations to support public health initiatives, climate change adaptation and mitigation, strategies for technical and vocational training and education as well as national civil aviation strategies13
Ghana has been quoted by UNICEF to be the home for west Africa’s first DPGs through its pathfinders project.14 Since the inception of the Startup Lab in 2021, which functions as an incubator for DPGs by supporting startups which already develop open source and offering training to those that are interested in open source, various capacity building, discovery and development initiatives have been facilitated. This has led to the discovery and development of digital public goods such as Bisa App, EduNoss and one still in the nomination stages and consideration for DPG status i.e. Project Konko.
EduNoss, the first registered DPG in Ghana, an education based platform provides pre-tertiary schools in Ghana with a platform to support STEM learning and innovate solutions aimed at promoting national development. This platform has been adopted by several schools in Ghana as a preferred operating system for STEM education, and noted in the Government’s Budget Statement (2022) as a potential tool in meeting sustainable development goal 4- quality education, in West Africa.15
Bisa App is a mobile application that allows patients to communicate with relevant healthcare professionals and receive information through mobile devices in Ghana. The application was especially utilized during the Covid-19 pandemic and is now being utilized to the advantage of persons who need medical advice but are unable to visit the hospital either due to high costs, wait time or the fear of stigmatization.16
On the other hand Project Konko, still at its nomination stage, is a virtual reality lesson creator aimed at providing an aggregate toolkit to publish and manipulate 2D content 360 video content and 3D objects into virtual learning environments and assess learning outcome.17 This project is noted to have the potential of being integrated with open source e-learning management systems allowing educators to have tools that keep track of learning and school records.18
Ghana further notes a need to support the advocacy and discovery of DPGs among entrepreneurs and startups including availability of DPGA open-source licensing training, and technical assistance during the nomination process, and availability of financial support for open-source developers.19 This was noted through a training session in 2021 by Startup lab where 22 companies were being trained and they noted knowledge gaps and limitations preventing them from applying as DPGs.20
Although DPGs, are championed as the most viable solution in not only meeting the SDGs but also creating solution based technologies for digital transformation, numerous hurdles lie ahead particularly as it relates to issues of financing, developing the digital infrastructure, data security arising from the use of open data, harms arising from leveraging technologies such as AI and the lack of stakeholder buy-in especially from a global market perspective when it comes to investing in open source products.21 This introductory segment on DPGs offers a highlight into the potential of continued growth in leveraging Digital public solutions creating a road map for further and future discussions spotlighting DPGs continentally noting the policy implications that would likely arise in considering the use of open data in building digital solutions for the benefit of all.
Image is from opendigitalecosystems.net
3UNICEF, ‘ Digital Public Goods Path Finders (unicef.org)<https://www.unicef.org/innovation/dpg-pathfinding-countries>accessed 15 January 2024
5UNICEF, ‘The Philippines: Collaboration Toward DPG Knowledge and Capacity Building (unicef.org) <https://www.unicef.org/innovation/dpg-pathfinding-countries/philippines>
6 UNICEF, ‘Niger: Empowering Young People Through Health and Climate Programs (Unicef.org 2 September 2022) <https://www.unicef.org/innovation/dpg-pathfinding-countries/niger> accessed 01 December 2023
7 UNICEF, ‘Ghana: Catalyzing Innovation Ecosystems Through Impactful Collaborations.’ (Unicef.org, 2 September 2022)https://www.unicef.org/innovation/dpg-pathfinding-countries/ghana accessed 22 January 2024
8 Age of Digital Interdependence:UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation (UN Secretary General High Level Panel,19 June 2019)
9 Digital Public Goods (Digital Public Goods Alliance) https://digitalpublicgoods.net/about/#:~:text=When%20they%20are%20freely%20and,preventing%20others%20from%20using%20it.
10 Szymczak C., ‘Ghana, home to some of West Africa’s first DPGs.’ (UNICEF, 1 December 2021)<https://www.unicef.org/innovation/stories/ghana-home-some-west-africas-first-dpgs> accessed 22 January 2024
12 United Nations, ‘UN Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.’ (Unitednations.org June 2020) <https://www.un.org/techenvoy/sites/www.un.org.techenvoy/files/general/Digital_Public_Goods_Summary_PDF.pdf> accessed 1 December 2023
14Digital Public Alliance, ‘Digital Public Goods’ (Digital by Public Alliance) https://digitalpublicgoods.net/about/#:~:text=The%20DPGA%20is%20guided%20by,%2C%20and%20do%20no%20harm.%E2%80%9D
15 Callaghan F, ‘The Challenges and Opportunities of scaling Digital Public Goods.’ (UN Global Pulse, 2022)<https://www.unglobalpulse.org/2022/05/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-scaling-digital-public-goods/> accessed 15 January 2023
16 Digital Public Alliance, ‘Digital Public Goods.’ <https://digitalpublicgoods.net/about/#:~:text=The%20DPGA%20is%20guided%20by,%2C%20and%20do%20no%20harm.%E2%80%9D> accessed 15 January 2024
17 Digital Health Information Software 2 referred to as DHIS2 is an open source, web-based platform most commonly used as a health management information system. It is the world’s largest health management information system platform and is in use by over 80 low -middle income countries.
19 Szymczak C., ‘Ghana, home to some of West Africa’s first DPGs.’ (UNICEF, 1 December 2021)<https://www.unicef.org/innovation/stories/ghana-home-some-west-africas-first-dpgs> accessed 22 January 2024
20 Szymczak C., ‘Ghana, home to some of West Africa’s first DPGs.’ (UNICEF, 1 December 2021)<https://www.unicef.org/innovation/stories/ghana-home-some-west-africas-first-dpgs> accessed 22 January 2024