Creating and deploying open solutions on digital public goods for a more equitable world

30/09/2021, por Angel

Creating and deploying open solutions on digital public goods for a more equitable world

Lucy Harris and Liv Marte Norhaug

Digital Public Good Alliance


Empodera Impact Stories talks to Lucy Harris and Liv Marte Norhaug, the Co-Leaders of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), an initiative endorsed by the UN Secretary-General that facilitates the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods. The DPGA is co-hosted by UNICEF and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). Prior to their involvement with the DPGA, Lucy led Community Development at the Mozilla Corporation and Liv led Norad’s Digital Empowerment Project.

 

Tell us about the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DGPA). How was it born and what is its philosophy?

The Digital Public Goods Alliance is a multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to accelerate the attainment of the sustainable development goals in low- and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods. The DPGA was co-founded by the Governments of Norway  and Sierra Leone, UNICEF and the think-tank iSPIRT in 2019 in response to the report “The Age of Digital Interdependence”, released by the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Expert Panel on Digital Cooperation. 

Recommendation 1B of the report stated, “We recommend that a broad, multi-stakeholder alliance, involving the UN, create a platform for sharing digital public goods, engaging talent and pooling data sets, in a manner that respects privacy, in areas related to attaining the SDGs.”

The DPGA believes that if the benefits of increased internet connectivity are to be realized, there must be equitable access to effective, secure, open source digital solutions – digital public goods. Digital public goods can play a critical role in responding to some of the world’s greatest challenges while helping to cultivate holistic and sustainable digital transformation. 

Our work is part of the response to the universal call to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere through the UN sustainable development goals.

 

What is a Digital Public Good and why is it important to protect them and use them in an open way?

A digital public good is defined by the UN Secretary General in the 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation as: “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.” This is the definition we use at the DPGA as well and that guides our work. In order to be considered a digital public good an open source solution must adhere to the DPG Standard, a set of specifications and guidelines designed to maximise consensus about whether a digital solution conforms to the definition set by the UN Secretary-General. 

There are nine indicators in the DPG Standard, the first of which is relevance to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a critical feature distinguishing DPGs from other openly licensed solutions. DPGs must also adhere to privacy and applicable laws, and demonstrate that they have taken steps to ensure the project anticipates, prevents, and does no harm.

 

“DPGs may help protect countries from vendor lock-in, facilitate local capacity building, and break down innovation silos by facilitating connection and reuse of existing systems”

 

To be considered a DPG, an open source project must first go through a nomination process. Solutions can be nominated by anyone through this public form. The DPGA’s technical team reviews the nomination to confirm that all nine indicators of the DPG Standard are met. Successful nominees are then considered digital public goods and are displayed as such on the DPG Registry

Digital public goods can, through generic quality, adoptability, adaptability and transparency, help ensure that digital solutions are scalable and sustainable; sovereign; market stimulating; and safeguard human rights. 

Historically, digital development initiatives have not always been holistic or sustainable. The digital revolution has so far tended to favour already wealthy nations and private interests.

Having a solution recognised as a DPG is valuable in three ways:

  • It shows that the solution aligns with the values and purpose of open source and UN SDGs based on a review against objective criteria. 
  • It shows commitment to best practices and mitigating harm – two core components for solutions to build trust with potential adopters.  
  • It also makes the solution more discoverable to the growing number of governments, funders and entities who want to support, adopt  and contribute to digital public goods.

We’re working with many governments, funders and multilateral organisations to continue to drive interest and to channel it towards DPGs.

 

 

You are a multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to achieve the SDGs in low and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods. This sounds amazing but, how does it get done? How can Digital Public Goods contribute to the fulfillment of the SDGs?

The DPGA is a broad multi-stakeholder community of countries, multilateral organisations, philanthropic and bilateral donor organisations, private companies, non-governmental organisations and research institutions working together to advance digital public goods.The DPGA exists because there is a need for the following:

  • To maintain access to quality, openly licensed, adaptable and quickly deployable digital public goods. 
  • To transform the complex systems, structures and practices in which DPGs are embedded. 
  • To mobilise the DPG ecosystem to sustainably fund and uplift DPGs.

The DPGA Secretariat works to identify, inspire, and coordinate the DPGA community to increase impact towards the DPGA’s strategy. It operates in a transparent and participatory manner that mirrors its commitment to open source. We do this by: 

  1. Maintaining the DPG definition and measuring solutions against the DPG Standard. 
  2. Maintaining the DPG Registry – which increases the discoverability of relevant DPGs. 
  3. Convening expert Communities of Practice in priority areas to further highlight high-potential DPGs. 
  4. Leading Pathfinding Pilots with LMICs to pilot new solutions or existing solutions in new contexts and share lessons learned. 
  5. Engaging a strong community of stakeholders in coordinated and aligned activities that contribute to the DPGA mission. 

The DPGA stakeholder community includes the co-founders and other stakeholders contributing to the DPGA’s vision and strategic objectives in respective areas of strength, and in alignment with the DPG Standard and definition. New members of the DPGA will be announced in the coming months.

 

The DPGA is governed by an Interim Strategy Group consisting of: The Government of Sierra Leone; The Government of Norway; iSPIRT; and UNICEF, while day to day functions rely on the Secretariat of the DGPA, co-hosted by UNICEF and Norad. How is working with such a wide range of national and international institutions? Is it dynamic? How are decisions made?

The DPGA benefits from the operational experience and reputations of its four co-founders and the independent, neutral Secretariat at the DPGA core. Sitting at the intersection of the UN, think-tanks and government, the DPGA has a unique and extremely dynamic position from which to coordinate a diverse alliance and drive meaningful change. We benefit from a diversity of perspectives, strengths and regional inputs from our ISG members while also relying on input from a wide variety of like-minded organisations and stakeholders who support the DPG mission. 

We have a governance structure that outlines our levels of decision making, and encourages participation from not just the Secretariat or Interim Strategy Group (ISG) members, but also partners and others across the DPG ecosystem.

What does Digital Cooperation mean and do and how can it affect us?

Digital Cooperation is the means by which governments, the private sector, civil society, international organisations, academia, the technical community and other relevant stakeholders collaborate to strengthen the digital space.

 

 

This can take many forms including formal partnerships, government initiatives, leadership at the UN-level, and more. However, the UN Secretary-General’s Roadmap on Digital Cooperation also identifies that, “The existing digital cooperation architecture has become highly complex and diffused but not necessarily effective, and global discussions and processes are often not inclusive enough. This situation is exacerbated by the lack of a common entry point into the global digital architecture, which makes it especially hard for developing countries, small and medium-sized enterprises, marginalized groups and other stakeholders with limited budgets and expertise to make their voices heard.” 

DPGs are by nature collaborative, and can help evolve a new, distributed international cooperation paradigm built on co-development. Those building and adapting DPGs are often not the traditional international development donors. Instead, countries like India, Estonia, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone are leading the way.

 

Anyone can nominate a Digital Public Good, become a Pathfinder or establish the Digital Public Goods standard baseline for recognition as a Digital Public Good. Are the citizens interested in contributing to the DGPA initiative? Where are they more active and how do they contribute?

Note for clarification on question 6: not any country/entity can become a pathfinder. These are pilots run specifically in conjunction with the DPGA’s interim strategy group and their country partners. This helps ensure that in the pilot phase of this work, we are getting accurate reporting.

Anyone can nominate a digital solution to the DPG Registry, and we encourage contributors to help validate DPG nominations as well. This is a particularly popular contribution opportunity for students who are trying to learn more about open source. Validating DPGs involves helping build an open source database of digital public goods (on the DPG Registry) that anyone can use to create a more equitable world. Contributors read information about a nominated project, check the evidence to confirm its accuracy and share their review. It’s a great way to learn about a number of projects. We have even partnered with the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to engage students in the review process as part of learning about humanitarian free and open source software (HFOSS). We look forward to expanding our academic partnerships around the DPG vetting process in the future

The DPG Standard also invites contribution as it is itself an open project and therefore open to contributions through the public GitHub repo. As an open standard, the DPGA supports the 5 Core Principles of OpenStand and we invite anyone who uses and benefits from the DPG Standard to weigh in on ongoing discussions, propose changes, and join our growing list of endorsers.

 

 

We strongly encourage everyone to nominate open source solutions as digital public goods to the DPG Registry at digitalpublicgood.net/nominate. If you’re not sure if a solution will qualify, we recently released a short eligibility assessment quiz you can take at digitalpublicgoods.net/eligibility. This quiz is also a great way to get a sense of what’s required from the full assessment and ease into the process if you’re not sure whether or not you’re ready to nominate. 

 

In 2020 the DPGA established the foundational tools meant to help achieve their mission, including the DPG Standard and DPG Registry. What are these tools and how can they contribute to achieve the DGPA goals?

The Digital Public Goods (DPG) Standard is a set of specifications and guidelines designed to maximise consensus about whether a digital solution conforms to the definition set by the UN Secretary-General in the 2020 Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, which states that a DPG, “is 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 attainment of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.

The DPG Standard establishes a baseline of requirements that must be met in order to earn recognition as a digital public good by the DPGA and the broader community. This standard has been operationalised and is stewarded by the DPGA to enhance alignment and reduce fragmentation in the digital landscape. The DPG Standard has been designed to be relevant for all DPGs regardless of sector and to cover minimum criteria. The term, “digital solution” is used to reference the software, content, data or AI model being nominated for review against the DPG Standard.

The DPG Registry, on the other hand, houses both nominations and digital public goods. Nominating is the first step towards being recognised as a digital public good. Once a nomination is submitted, it undergoes a technical review against the DPG Standard, (previously mentioned) which is the minimum standard that all digital public goods must meet. Submissions that have been successfully reviewed and found to meet the DPG Standard will receive a DPG icon to help identify them. Users of the DPG Registry can filter to see only DPGs or only nominees.  

Once a digital solution is listed on the DPG Registry, it is further searchable by SDG-relevance or type by any potential implementer.

One of your areas of work is finding Digital Public Goods in use in certain countries and scale them up and apply them to a global level?

Partially. One of our areas of work is Pathfinding Pilots. In these pilots DPGA interim strategy group members work with partners and government entities in low- and middle-income countries to run programs that pilot new ways to change the power balance around technology solutions. 

Through their experience implementing digital public goods, pathfinders help define use cases, identify needs, inform adaptations, and enable policy frameworks. Through pilots, they share learnings for both the creation of new DPGs from different approaches for building local capacity, and for existing DPGs that are locally managed through adaptation and implementation. 

The goal isn’t always to scale globally, but could be regional or even just improving local deployments.

 

 

The DGPA works with Communities of Practice. Could you tell us more about these groups and how do they contribute to build a more equitable and fair world for all?

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are groups of experts who convene to support the discovery, assessment, and advancement of digital public goods with high potential for addressing critical development needs.

CoPs exist for various sectors and critical topics including climate change adaptation, education, financial inclusion, and health. Within these topics, each CoP scopes and defines a particular focus area by considering the relevance and potential impact of DPGs. CoPs then identify and highlight a number of DPGs that are particularly relevant to that focus area such as immunization delivery management, or inclusive financial workflows at scale.

CoPs are a means of leveraging years of experience from individuals operating in relevant sectors that have gained invaluable insights into implementation processes and development needs, who can collectively accelerate the achievement of the sustainable development goals.

How does collaboration play a role in the global work of the DGPA? What is the role of Pathfinder Countries? Please give us some examples or success cases in this sense.

Collaboration is key to not only the work of the DPGA, but to the success of the entire DPG ecosystem. The Secretariat is designed as a convening platform to accelerate and coordinate the work of a wide-variety of stakeholders. Nothing gets done without the collaboration of multiple organisations. It is built into the governance structure of the DPGA – having four co-founders working closely with a neutral Secretariat – but also shows up in our working model. We bring in Communities of Practice that are experts to help drive our work thematically, and Pathfinder Countries which play a pivotal role in localising DPGs and sharing their learnings with other countries and potential implementers of a given DPG. We’ll share two success stories from the Pathfinding pilots: 

First, in early 2021 DHIS2 and DIVOC, two digital public goods, teamed up in Sri Lanka. DHIS2 built and launched a COVID-19 tracker app in Sri Lanka that was scaled worldwide. DHIS2 was also used to track vaccines across the country. Then, they connected with DIVOC to issue vaccine certificates for those fully vaccinated in Sri Lanka. The collaboration is open source and replicable in other countries. In fact, DIVOC is a DPG that was developed in India. 

Second, is Project AEDES (Advanced Early Dengue Prediction and Exploration Service), developed in the Philippines, which is a dengue data modelling prototype. In 2020, UNICEF and CirroLytix started working with AEDES on the possibility of becoming a DPG. Here’s a quote from Dominic Ligot, CirroLytix Founder and Chief Technology Officer, “We felt that social impact and public health solutions such as AEDES felt more appropriate as something society should openly benefit from”. Project AEDES became a digital public good in May 2021.

 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work? Has it made everything more urgent or has it stopped you from achieving certain goals?

Of course there have been challenges. Working on a global, distributed team and with stakeholders all over the world means that many of our colleagues and stakeholders have been affected by the pandemic. This also means we are keenly aware of inequalities in pandemic response and how its affects are disproportionately distributed.  

The pandemic has also meant that we cannot bring our global team together physically. Many people in the Secretariat, (including the two co-leads!) have never actually met in person. We joke that despite working together every day we have no idea how tall the other one is.

More than anything, however, the pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for state-of-the-art open source digital solutions that can be rapidly adopted and adapted to meet needs in multiple contexts. Whether it is access to high-quality digital educational content when school shutdowns affect countries around the world, or ensuring vaccine delivery management systems are available to all countries, the case for DPGs has never been clearer.

 

DGPA Official site: digitalpublicgoods.net

Twitter: @dgpgalliance 

LinkedIn: @dgpgalliance 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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