According to the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, digital public goods are open-source software, open standards, open data, open AI systems, and open content collections that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This definition is operationalised through the DPG Standard, a set of nine indicators that are used to determine whether or not open-source software, open data, open AI systems, and open content collections are digital public goods. Once a solution is recognised as a digital public good it is discoverable on the DPG Registry. While the DPGA is not actively evaluating specific standards as digital public goods at this time, we recognize their significance by mandating that all DPGs adhere to pertinent standards as a fundamental criterion for achieving DPG status which is why the DPG Standard emphasises “Adherence to Standards & Best Practices”.
The concept of digital public goods derives from the economic term “public good” which refers to something that is non-excludable and non-rivalrous. Non-excludability indicates that you cannot prevent someone from using or consuming that good. Non-rivalrousness indicates that one’s consumption or usage does not limit or take away from someone else’s.
The concept of public goods has since evolved into the digital era. The digital environment is particularly conducive for public goods and has created new methodologies for delivering them. The most common examples stem from free and open-source software (FOSS). FOSS has an open code base, meaning others can utilise it for their own product development, and by doing so it doesn’t take away or limit someone else’s ability to do the same.
Digital Public Goods in Action
Digital public goods take many forms and facilitate a range of positive impacts. Whether it be open-source software that enables government agencies to better serve their citizens, open datasets that power digital solutions to make better decision, or open standards that improve digital interoperability, one thing is clear, they can be a force for good for a country’s digital transformation efforts.
The Digital Public Goods Alliance believes that 21st century solutions are needed to address 21st century challenges. That includes the use of digital public goods, which can be powerful tools for addressing the Sustainable Development Goals, which are some of the greatest challenges humanity is facing. Below are examples of DPGs working to advance attainment of the SDGs.
Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Well-Being: In early 2021 DHIS2 and DIVOC, two digital public goods, teamed up in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Health Information Systems Programme built a COVID-19 tracker app on top of DHIS2, which was subsequently made more generic, enabling it to scale worldwide. Then, they connected with DIVOC to issue vaccine certificates for those fully vaccinated. The collaboration has since been replicated in other countries.
Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality: Primero, a web app developed in 2013 for confidential case management and incident monitoring in social welfare, child protection, and gender based violence, sets the goal of bringing more coherent, cost effective, and user friendly information management tools to the Social Welfare, Child Protection, and Gender Based Violence sectors. It aims to fill the gap in social welfare with a fit-for-purpose, open-source solution that can be easily, affordably, and safely used by frontline workers, address the inefficiencies and insecurity of paper-based documentation, and save this workforce time and energy. In October 2021 it celebrated its 50th deployment by going live in South Sudan.
Sustainable Development Goal 9, Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: MOSIP, which has been guided by the Principles of Identification for Sustainable Development that the World Bank’s ID4D-program has stewarded, helps governments and other user organisations implement a digital, foundational identity system in a cost effective way. MOSIP offers the core modules needed to create a vendor-neutral and interoperable solution to create a country’s foundational identity system.
Why digital public goods matter
When implementing digital solutions, digital public goods should be considered and prioritised. Digital public goods provide benefits to countries, institutions, and businesses trying to advance and achieve the SDGs. Below are some of the leading benefits of digital public goods:
- Adoptability: DPGs can be freely adopted by governments or agencies.
- Avoid Vendor Lock-in: Because DPGs are open source, they do not lock the user into one technology vendor, thus ensuring compatibility.
- Scalability: Adopting DPGs that have been successfully implemented at scale elsewhere can save countries and institutions resources and enable lower risk experimentation, piloting, and roll-out.
- Adaptability: DPGs can be adapted to fit local needs which can also help build long-term ownership and agency of implementing countries.
- Collaboration: Any users of a particular DPG can collaborate and share best practices, as is the case in most communities of practice.
- Project sustainability: Adaptations and iterations in countries can be supported by open-source communities. New features and best-practices developed by implementing countries can be merged into the generic DPG.
- Country ownership and capacity: DPGs can enable deep involvement of local expertise in country-specific implementations and can be deployed together with dedicated efforts to build long-term local capacity to maintain and iterate these implementations for future needs.
- Transparency and accountability: The open-source licensing of DPGs means that their code base can be independently scrutinised and audited. This also facilitates accountability and public discourse around issues such as incorporating best practices and designing DPGs with the aim of doing no harm.
Why should a digital solution become a DPG?
Being recognised as a digital public good is increasingly beneficial as the concept of digital public goods gains awareness and traction, including:
- Recognition as adhering to a minimum standard which increases adoptability. Digital public goods must meet the requirements set out in the Digital Public Goods Standard. Digital public goods have clear documentation, open licenses, and follow standards and best practices that make them easier to adopt. We support digital solutions working to meet these standards.
- Discoverability and promotion. The Digital Public Goods Registry uniquely shares digital public goods with a broad audience of stakeholders including governments, NGOs, and the private sector. As an added bonus, the DPG Registry is partially compiled from, and feeds back into, partner systems like the Catalog of Digital Solutions maintained by the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL). This method of cross-pollination enhances discoverability and accelerates the likelihood of a nominee being found and adopted by organisations and governments looking for innovative solutions.
- Deployment opportunities. The Digital Public Goods Alliance aims to showcase digital public goods and works with an array of stakeholders including governments, UN agencies, and others in promoting DPGs. This includes potential added exposure through DPGA Communities of Practice who review digital solutions with high-impact potential in a particular focus area.
- Development impact. Governments and development agencies are reframing approaches to international development with a focus on creating and adapting open-source projects. Digital public goods are committed to open-source principles that also respect privacy, strive to “do no harm”, and help attain the SDGs.
- Participate in a global community of DPG builders. Once a digital solution becomes a digital public good, they become a part of global community of DPG practitioners to exchange experiences and share knowledge with peers and experts.
If you are a start up or an accelerator that supports start ups, visit UNICEF Innovation’s DPG Accelerator Guide.