UNICEF Philippines announces its first Digital Public Good Pathfinding Pilot

Progress towards every sustainable development goal hinges on the development of digital technologies and cooperation in their implementation. Globally, digital innovation can address humanity’s most pressing issues which highlights an increasing need for digital cooperation. 

Digital public goods (DPGs), which are open source solutions that do no harm, are unique in their ability to break the dependency on rigid proprietary solutions that lock governments and partners into long-term contracts that fall short of the customization required to meet local needs. In contrast, DPGs provide an unprecedented opportunity to advance digital cooperation by utilising technology to meet local needs while also building the digital foundations key to long-term capacity building and digital independence.

The Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) works with partners and government entities in low- and middle-income countries to pilot new ways to change the existing power balance around digital solutions with digital public goods. Through these collaborations, we run pathfinding pilots. By implementing digital public goods locally and regionally, pathfinders help define use cases, identify needs, inform adaptations, and enable policy frameworks.

Because of their agility to adapt and ability to interoperate with existing systems, digital public goods have played a key role in responding to the pandemic. Countries with strong digital foundations have been better positioned to capitalize on the benefits of digital technologies in their local pandemic response.

In the context of COVID-19, this UNICEF Philippines pathfinding pilot comes at an opportune time. There is a pressing need to address epidemiological concerns raised by the pandemic, but also to address other socioeconomic concerns exacerbated by it.

In January 2021, UNICEF Philippines, in cooperation with the UNICEF Office of Global Innovation and the DPGA began a Digital Public Goods Pathfinding Pilot. Using Project AEDES (Advanced Early Dengue Prediction and Exploration Service), a digital public good used to monitor dengue cases, the two are working together to implement it in select pilot cities in the Philippines and other countries with high incidence of dengue and similar data challenges.

The goal of UNICEF Philippine’s pathfinding pilot is two-fold. First, to find ways that DPGs can benefit from and leverage existing technical country capacity to better existing Technology for Development (T4D) efforts that are both relevant to UNICEF programming and supported by UNICEF Philippines and the Government. Second, to establish a mechanism to transfer that capacity and knowledge to other sectors including education and climate change, including a wider range of government line agencies. As part of this pilot, a local DPG landscape analysis will be done to find out which DPGs are currently in use or being developed, and what additional sectors they can serve.

Local Solutions Resolving Local Challenges

UNICEF Philippines has been collaborating with the Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development division of the Department of Science and Technology, a national government agency, to raise awareness of the DPG Standard, and the value of aligning digital solutions to it. 

The Philippines has an active innovation and startup community, which includes Project AEDES, a dengue data modelling prototype which was developed by CirroLytix with support from Philippines Department of Science and Technology, and was one of the first digital solutions engaged by UNICEF Philippines.

“We joined the 2019 NASA Space Apps Challenge as an entry point to the development sector, especially since the focus of the competition was the Sustainable Development Goals,” at the time, “dengue was an epidemic in the country, the worst it had been in the last five years,” says Dominic Ligot, CirroLytix Founder and Chief Technology Officer. 

The AEDES prototype is an automated information portal that correlates dengue cases and deaths with real-time data from climate, Google searches, and satellite maps. Further research and consultations with epidemiologists pointed to certain connections between weather patterns and Google searches to dengue cases, as well as to existing work around detecting stagnant water and mosquito habitats from space. Using this information, AEDES provides an advanced indicator of when dengue will emerge and potential hotspots that may arise. This portal can benefit public health and local government agencies by giving advance notice of dengue outbreaks which can help prioritize resources.

“If we could get around the delays in data gathering by using predictive analytics – and not just make data available but turn it into a tool or indicator that would be useful to decision makers and not just technical data practitioners – that could make a significant difference,” says Ligot. 

Becoming a DPG

In 2020, DPG focal points from UNICEF and CirroLytix started working with Project AEDES on the possibility of becoming a digital public good. These conversations focused on development trajectories if the project were open source with open content. This included a focus on functional and architecture documentation, source code, how it should be structured on GitHub, privacy standards, and terms of use that uphold content integrity.

“We felt that social impact and public health solutions such as AEDES felt more appropriate as something society should openly benefit from” said Ligot.“That was an eye opener for us,” says Mark Toledo, Solutions Architect at CirroLytix. “In our data ethics documentation, we had to put provisions on ethical use of data at every stage of AEDES’ development, use, and deployment to ensure that data we shared was properly reviewed and curated, and to ensure that, in the event that it was replicated by other developers, it was done in such a way that didn’t compromise data integrity or introduce reputational risks to AEDES.”

Run-ins with licensed library dependencies and paywalls also prompted CirroLytix to explore alternate weather indicators, ensuring that AEDES could still function if access to one weather data source was lost.

With an open content, open data, and open AI model license, the aim was to make it easier for a developer to access AEDES, use it, deploy it, and then replicate it in a very programmatic way. These resources and the learnings gained throughout the nomination process now also inform CirroLytix’s development and documentation of their other projects.

In May 2021, AEDES became a digital public good. The CirroLytix team hopes this can accelerate the development of technology that can save lives stricken by dengue by increasing their visibility to other dengue research initiatives and experts involved.

If you work on, or know of a digital solution that should be included in the DPG Registry or would benefit from a similar experience to that of AEDES, please consider nominating them or reaching out to the Digital Public Goods Alliance.