Why Open Source?

The Digital Public Goods Alliance has spent the last several months developing the Digital Public Goods Standard, and working with stakeholders from across sectors to determine criteria that allows us to answer the question: is this a digital public good?

In alignment with the UN Secretary-General’s 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, we define digital public goods (DPGs) as open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable best practices, do no harm and are of high relevance for attaining the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Many types of digital technologies and content – from data to apps, data visualisation tools to educational curricula – could accelerate achievement of the SDGs. However, it is only if they are freely and openly available, with minimal restrictions on how they can be distributed, adapted and reused that we can think of them as “digital public goods”. 

Why Open Source? 

Not all open source projects are digital public goods, but all digital public goods must be open source. 

Open source is broadly defined as when the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. This is a crucial part of digital public goods where, for example, software, content and data must be accessible independently of any particular vendor and allow software, data and content to be freely used, modified, and shared. There are many existing open licenses, and the choice of license has implications on how the code, data or content can be reused. We’ll therefore dig deeper into the process of identifying which “approved” licenses were included in the DPG Standard, and why, in our next blog post. In this post we present an overview of the case for open source. 

“Open” ensures the software, data, AI model, standard or content we’re working with can be adopted, scaled and adapted in various country contexts. It also ensures transparency, can contribute to project sustainability, and reduces the risk of vendor lock-in. Below we describe each of these benefits in turn. 

Adoptability, Scalability & Adaptability 

For digital public goods to scale across markets, they must be freely adoptable and adaptable. 

For example, the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP), a technology that helps governments implement a foundational ID, can be freely adopted by countries who can adapt the open software to fit their local needs. This can help build long-term ownership and agency within each implementing country and can also allow the platform to scale over time across many countries. 

Transparency & Sustainability 

Open source licensing allows a digital public goods’ code base to be independently scrutinized and audited. This can increase accountability and facilitate discourse about the steps that have been taken to design technologies that are inclusive and do no harm. 

Having a transparent code base can also allow for greater sustainability. As each implementing country adapts or iterates on the code, these changes can be shared back to help evolve and better the source code. 

Vendor Lock-In 

It can be costly to obtain licenses from vendors. This can also cause ‘lock-in’, meaning that a government or organization is beholden to that vendor for relevant service or maintenance for the duration of the contract. Additionally, state-owned solutions could suffer from politicization of access, where states may choose to give permission to their allies over others, making access vulnerable to geopolitical shifts and tensions. 

While the cost of implementing and configuring open source software is often comparable to purchasing a license, open source offers more control and independence and reduces the risk of vendor or political lock-in. This makes it easier for governments in particular to plan their digital futures in a holistic and long-term way.

Finally, an open approach to digital development can help to increase collaboration and resource mobilization in the digital development community, avoid duplicating work that has already been done, and attract new investors and contributors to initiatives with high-impact potential. This allows programs to maximize their resources — and ultimately their impact — through open standards, open data, open source technologies and open innovation.

Open source is a necessary condition for any technology to be considered a digital public good. It enables sharing, reuse and adaptation to suit local needs. And, combined with the right support and funding structures, open source represents an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally alter power balances in international development. This means more creation and iteration can happen locally; trust in technology can be built through agency and transparency; and, best practices and learnings can be shared across geographical, institutional and expertise borders. We believe this is critical to advancing a more equitable world and is why open source is fundamental to the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA).

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