How 'digital highways' could boost inclusion and advance the SDGs

Night, bridge, traffic, car lights red yellow white; long exposure nighttime shot of traffic on bridge; digital highway
The pandemic has shown DPIs can connect people with vital services, but has also highlighted digital inequality and online privacy concerns.
Image: Unsplash / @andersjilden
  • Digital public infrastructure (DPI) - or "digital highways" - are online platforms or solutions that deliver shared public and private services.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how DPIs can help ensure people everywhere receive vital services, but it has also highlighted issues such as digital inequality and online privacy and trust concerns.
  • By facilitating collaboration between the users and the creators of these systems, these challenges can be overcome to produce robust, standardized DPIs that serve all communities and meet the UN SDGs.

The COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously threatened global development while accelerating the digitization of government. In the process, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - through the 170 countries and territories that we work with - has witnessed the power, as well as the challenge, of using digital public infrastructure (DPI) in response to a crisis.

DPI, also known as digital highways, refer to critical tech-led infrastructure that is built to scale digital service delivery. When developed with open standards that are interoperable, with principles of privacy as defined by digital public goods, DPI can maximise inclusion.

In order to deploy at scale and advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in tangible ways, however, DPI needs to move beyond the debate over how to build its tech stack. The focus should instead be on designing a platform for inclusion using community engagement and governance frameworks. By doing this, DPI can serve as a tool to accelerate efforts to meet the SDGs.

UNDP has recently joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a coalition that brings together governments and organisations who see the potential of DPI to accelerate digital transformation globally. We believe DPI needs to be inclusive and designed with people at the centre, particularly those who have been left behind so far by the digital revolution. Our priority is to minimise risk and potential harm to these vulnerable people, while creating massive societal benefits from shared infrastructure.

Local solutions are already making an impact

As we work to scale-up DPI deployments using DPGs, it is increasingly important that we focus on DPI design, governance and community engagement – both with innovators and citizens - with a use-case led approach to solve the specific challenges of digital highways on the ground.

There are already a number of emerging examples of DPI contributing to SDGs in this way:

  • OpenG2P: an end-to-end solution for digitizing large-scale cash transfer programmes. The Government of Sierra Leone designed this tool based on UNDP’s support of the country’s Ebola response. It has put cash in people’s hands and reduced digital exclusion.
  • AgStack launched by Linux Foundation: an initiative to mitigate legacy technology systems so that countries can use collaboration and open-source software to build digital infrastructure and save some of the 33% of food produced globally that is currently wasted.
  • Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS): a system introduced by the Government of India to provide presence-less, paperless, cashless and consent-based delivery of justice. It recognises that we must consider the risks of centralised, interoperable and permanent digital databases on the privacy and liberties of individuals. This kind of DPI preserves the rights and dignities of the marginalized individuals that are often the subjects of the criminal justice system.
  • Various pandemic responses: DPI has also been used to build a coherent, comprehensive and rapid financial response to the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, governments in countries such as Bangladesh and Togo have established digital systems to send wages and benefits quickly and seamlessly to the accounts of women affected by the pandemic.

"The next frontier for DPI is to shape the platform design, strengthen governance and nurture community on a local level."

—Robert Opp, UNDP

Addressing the challenges

For all of the progress that has been made thus far on DPI, it still suffers from several limitations that must be addressed. Consideration must be given to the 3.7 billion people not included in the digital world – those without access or unable to afford mobile phones or broadband connectivity and lacking sufficient digital capabilities or functional digital identities. There are also critical debates to be had around privacy and trust. These issues need to be carefully addressed when implementing DPI globally.

The next frontier for DPI, therefore, is to shape the platform design, strengthen governance and nurture community on a local level. This will help us to reach scale and contribute meaningfully to the SDGs.

The challenges of connecting excluded and underserved communities in countries are deep-rooted, pervasive and interconnected, but as the world rapidly digitizes, inclusive DPI can help every individual to feel empowered and safe online. It can enable them to reap benefits from technology and face minimal harm from its risks. For this, we need to collectively create a thriving and well-governed digital and data economy. This needs to be within the wider context of selecting, maintaining and running systems within a strong interoperable ecosystem, rather than by using individual tools.

digital, COVID-19, EDISON Alliance

EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Nearly half of the world is still not online.

With more basic services moving online and the pandemic highlighting affordability challenges in wealthier nations, these deep digital gaps are exacerbating inequality and preventing the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At The Davos Agenda, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-sector alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

The EDISON Alliance will prioritize digital inclusion as the platform of platforms for partners with a common purpose for achieving the SDGs. Its vision is to ensure that every person can affordably participate in the digital economy.

Collaborating on innovative solutions

UNDP, with the support of our member states, will continue to contribute to the work of understanding who is responsible for creating DPI, maintaining the infrastructure and defining good country-specific governance frameworks. Who should own it, who should pay for it, and how to ensure accountability in case of harms, are some of the emerging questions that require local dialogue and partnerships.

In addition to engaging the eventual users of these digital platforms, we also need to work with those who build them. By experimenting with innovative solutions, we have witnessed how civil society and community networks, including responsible tech think tanks, play a crucial role in this. They can help develop a better understanding of problems, address market failures, protect individual agency and rights, as well as creating strong and responsive institutions.

"By standardizing the digital public infrastructure layer, we can level the playing field and create value for those at the risk of being left behind."

—Robert Opp, UNDP

As we work to address the challenges faced by both our planet and its people, UNDP has made bold commitments to accelerate local deployments, include diverse voices and foster on-the-ground value creation. By standardizing the digital public infrastructure layer, we can level the playing field and create value for those at the risk of being left behind. After experiencing the pandemic - one of the greatest challenges of our time - we must invest in inclusive digital infrastructure to secure our recovery and meet the SDGs. Inclusive DPI can lay the groundwork to achieve these outcomes.

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