Sustainable Development

'Open' technology can tackle the world's biggest problems - here's what's holding it back

Digital public goods and digital public infrastructure can accelerate equitable COVID-19 recovery.

Digital public goods and digital public infrastructure can accelerate equitable COVID-19 recovery. Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo

Varad Pande
Partner and Director, Climate & Sustainability, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Keyzom Ngodup Massally
Head of Digital Programmes, Chief Digital Office, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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  • Open source approaches to technologies can help governments more efficiently develop tailored solutions to big and urgent challenges.
  • Implementing digital public goods (DPGs) to leverage digital public infrastructure (DPI) can provide crucial interventions for emergencies and development.
  • DPI and DPGs, when combined with community engagement and accountable governance, form Open Digital Ecosystems (ODEs) that democratize access to government systems and enable collaborative citizen-centric services.
  • Key changes must be made to ensure that governments can maximize digital ecosystems to accelerate the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The utility of technological solutions in a crisis has never been clearer. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the power of leveraging the interconnectedness and interdependence between countries to design intervention tools.

Digital public goods (DPGs) and digital public infrastructure (DPI) are prime examples of technological investments into 'open' tech that can help governments more quickly develop solutions to big and urgent challenges. Maximizing the potential of these technologies will take new mindsets, collaborations and approaches to technological capacity.

The concept of 'openness'

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," as described in the UN secretary-general's Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. One example of a DPG is DIVOC, a programme that has been customized by governments to generate over 1 billion secure and verifiable vaccination certificates in India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Jamaica and Indonesia.

DPIs refer to societal scale digital systems with functions essential for public and private service delivery, including payment systems and data exchanges. One example of a DPI is OpenG2P, which digitized cash transfers and was built during the West Africa Ebola crisis.

Both DPGs and DPIs are anchored in the idea of "openness" and open-source, i.e. each problem has to be solved only once. The solution is made freely and widely available to anyone who wishes to use it, modify it or built upon it.

When combined with the power of community engagement and accountable governance, DPGs and DPIs come together to form Open Digital Ecosystems (ODEs) that democratize access to government systems while allowing the community to join hands to build citizen-centric services within an accountable governance framework. ODEs, therefore, unlock and amplify the benefits of DPIs and DPGs by getting both the tech and non-tech elements right.

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Challenges in deployment and implementation

While some countries have successfully deployed and implemented DPGs and DPIs at scale, major challenges remain. Constraints in technical capability, a persistent digital divide, lack of fiscal space, unintended exclusions and the risks to data and digital rights of citizens can slow or complicate the development and execution of these solutions.

It is, therefore, crucial that multilateral actors come together to aid country-level efforts and provide thought leadership to global efforts. The UN's Our Common Agenda offers a significant opportunity to build commitment on a Global Digital Compact to build safe, equitable and inclusive digital ecosystems worldwide.

A lot is being said and written on DPGs, DPIs and ODEs lately, mainly unpacking the "why" and "what", which is welcome. However, to move forward at the speed and scale required, we believe it is timely to now focus on three priorities that focus on the "how":

1. Moving from words to action

Implementers at national and sub-national levels want to know how to "get it done." That means the global community needs to galvanize the resources (ODA, innovative finance, etc.), develop suitable interoperable standards and support country-relevant implementations where there are persistent gaps in access and inclusion. It requires a well-coordinated approach to avoid fragmentation, learnings are leveraged and impact is maximized.

The Office of the UN Secretary General's Tech Envoy, UNDP and other members of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) such as Sierra Leone, Germany and Norway are already working alongside other stakeholders to create meaningful pathways towards implementation.

The recent collaboration between MOSIP and OpenG2P is an example of how identity and the Government-to-Person (G2P) benefit transfer ecosystem is converging as part of DPIs to support countries to deliver services and social assistance rapidly and responsibly. Collaborative efforts such as Co-Develop bring together resources that can help countries build inclusive, safe and equitable DPIs. Such actions need to be fast-tracked and replicated at the earliest.

2. Building deeper country capacity

The availability of technical expertise is a challenge for implementing DPGs and DPIs and their subsequent maintenance and scaling. Global technical cooperation can play a catalytic role to support bottom-up country efforts in this endeavour.

The GovStack Initiative is one such initiative to provide a catalogue of "building blocks" that countries can deploy to scale digital services; however, the impact of these efforts needs to be reinforced with a stronger focus on country-level capacities and user journeys. The World Bank ID4D is a useful example; this intervention specifically focuses on providing resources for countries to plan, manage and finance the building of foundational ID systems.

Greater regional and south-south cooperation in bringing technical expertise closer to the countries will be critical. These include the collaboration being led by UNDP between countries such as Mauritius, which has a long history in open source with Mauritania. Such sustainable capacity flows can be facilitated through greater global cooperation for countries that are just starting to build their whole-of-government digital systems.


3. Leave no one behind

If the DPG-DPI movement leaves some people behind or exacerbates the digital divide, it has failed. Therefore, a key priority for international cooperation needs to ensure digital accessibility and affordability, improving digital literacy.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) is one such example. It aims to drive down the cost of internet access in low- and middle-income countries through policy and regulatory reform. UNDP's Accelerator Lab network is another initiative that works across 91 countries, including Lebanon, Togo, Kenya, Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, and Argentina, to create local innovation hubs to address critical access and online safety areas.

Such "tech basics" need to remain a priority even as we get more nuanced on deploying tech-led interventions like DPIs and DPGs.

The way ahead

As international cooperation accelerates to implement global digital commons, governments can lead the way by catalyzing critical conversations on the role of the global south and local digital ecosystems as builders and implementers of inclusive, equitable and safe digital ecosystems. But they will need the international community's support to deliver on the extraordinary promise that DPGs, DPIs and ODEs hold for the world.

This space is where the new era of dynamic, open and inclusive global cooperation must find its next calling.

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